Monday, June 29, 2015

Jane Piirto: T47W-R27N Rocks

This last month, Michigan State University Press published an exciting multigenre collection called Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, edited by Ron Riekki, who's doing as much as anyone living to highlight the many writers who write about Michigan and/or consider Michigan their home. He's edited several anthologies now, and Here is the most recent and perhaps the most exciting. As soon as a friend tipped me off to its publication, my mouth started watering, and I'm glad to say it's a great collection, one that you should certainly check out. Michigan's my home state, and my state of mind, and since I live in Arizona now, whenever a new Michigan anthology drops, I'm filled with a sense of longing for my home, and I think anew about what it means to write about or to or from a place—or to write a place, as we do, since we're not all writing documentary. We have complicated relationships with the places we're from or that we choose or choose us. 

One of the great things about these anthologies is how they introduce me to writers that I didn't yet know writing about a place I do—or that I thought I did, until I read their work and saw it new. Jane Piirto is one of these writers, and we asked her here to talk about place and writing place and her connection to it. (And a little later in the year, we'll hear from another contributor to Here, Emily Van Kley.) In the meantime, enjoy Jane's essay—and check out the anthology. I promise it'll be worth your time. --Ander


T47N R27W Rocks

Jane Piirto


“It was no wonder that they found iron ore; it was everywhere; this is the Marquette range; these are the two richest Michigan iron townships, land descriptions that still have a ring of greatness about them: T47N R26W and T47N R27W.” 

--John Bartlow Martin, Call It North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan


I was wearing a white cotton sweatshirt with blue letters saying “Ishpeming High School” for the July 4, 1986 celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty along the Hudson River in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. A woman came over to me as we were watching the parade of tall ships, Operation Sail, under the Verazzano Bridge.
     “Ishpeming,” she said to me. “You know where Ishpeming is?”
     “I grew up there and still go home every summer.”
     “I was the makeup artist on Anatomy of a Murder. It was very far away and very cold.”
     We chatted for a few moments. The Verrazano Bridge, beneath which we were standing, is the longest suspension bridge in the U.S., but the Mackinac Bridge that spans the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan, is the 3rd longest, after the Golden Gate Bridge. She recalled the fear she experienced crossing the Mackinac Bridge, which had only just opened when she had her sojourn in Ishpeming.
     She laughed when I told her I give directions to T-47 N.-R.26W by saying, “Turn left at the Mackinac Bridge and drive 180 miles, all of it on two-lane roads, except for the last 15. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has few four-lane highways.”


The next month, about 1200 miles from Brooklyn, as I slid down the steep, rocky cliff overgrown with brush, on my bum, my knees up and my heels guiding me, I spied it. It was beneath dense green undergrowth on dry leaves, in a sumac stand in leafy-topped wild carrot that hides the ground and harbors garter snakes in moist cool darkness. My mother forged the lead, and she was already down to the bottom; even though I am 25 years younger than she, I was hard-pressed to keep up with her in the woods behind our house on Jasper Street in Ishpeming, Michigan. This is the back of the Hard Ore Addition in arguably the richest iron ore township in the USA. We were off trail, bushwhacking, trying to find an old footpath to Lake Sally, the lofty lake that was the water supply for our town. When it was first surveyed in the 1840s, this land was so rough that chaining a straight line was almost impossible.
     The rock was a heavy, white, scored, chunk of snow quartz. I grabbed my camera from around my neck, spreading my newly painted red fingernails about its football-sized circumference, and took this photograph. We were in the middle of the decline, and it was steep, the quartz very heavy, too heavy to pick up and carry home. I mentally marked its place and followed my mother to the swampy bottom, where the marsh marigolds grow in May, and where the ground was spongy even now in August. I had just arrived from New York City, where I worked as a school principal at Hunter College Campus Schools—thus the red fingernails. They tell the time of the photograph as I only had red fingernails at that time in my life, in 1986.
     That rock is still there, I believe, under the underbrush on that hill’s cliff, born there over ten million years ago, to hide there unappreciated. I could never find it again, even though we are denizens of this wood and know it well. The wood is dense with trails for buggies and horses, the trails designed in the early 1900s by landscape architect William Manning for the nearby cottage of the iron magnate William B. Mather, of Cleveland. It contains over 200 varieties of plants, many imported, including the wild carrot, which has overrun many yards. Our neighborhood, aptly named Cleveland Location, was his home in Ishpeming. This quartz was most likely part of a wide quartz vein in the famous Negaunee iron bed. The cottage is still used by the bosses who travel to town from Cleveland to assess their iron holdings—now open pit mines. When I was growing up our town had underground mines, and my father worked the Blueberry Mine for awhile, but he didn’t like it underground. He then worked for years as a welder at The Brownstone Shops, on East Division Street, a union man working for the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. He died in 1974 of lung cancer at the age of 62.
     I know these woods so intimately I mentally walk and crosscountry ski the paths when I am under stress, and I can recall specific trees and rocks along the paths. Since I live near Cleveland, Ohio, I have spent time researching the Mather family and the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company at the Western Reserve Archives, where many of their papers languish. Next to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame on the south shore of Lake Erie, is their private ore boat, the W. G. Mather, also a museum. This boat was the flagship of the 13 boats the Company owned. One photograph in the Western Reserve museum shows the family reclining on deck chairs over the ore pockets on their annual trip up the lakes to Marquette. One of the mining towns in this area is named after Mather’s mother, Gwinn. Perusing the plat book for Marquette County describes the ownership of much land by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. We only bought the land our house stands on from the Company in the 1970s, though we have lived in the house since 1938.
     In my yard I have a sacred circle of rocks which I have picked up on my travels, including speckled salt and pepper granite from Yosemite, copper-bearing rock from Calumet, and stones from Russia, Australia, England, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Hungary, and other places I have traveled. Coming home with a small rock in my purse has never caused me to be searched at customs. The local rocks are the ones I treasure most. I have round black basalt from the shores of Lake Superior, and many others of water-tossed Superior granite as well. Though I have tried, I have never found an agate while beachcombing. Round wave-smoothed Lake Superior rocks also lay placed above the firebox in our sauna stove out at camp, as they do in fireplaces and sauna stoves all over the region. The cover of my book of poems, Saunas, is one of the old saunas built by immigrants in the Finnish way.
     The rocks from mine waste piles of Township 47 North also form a spectacular stone wall probably laid by Italian stone masons who immigrated to work in the mines early in the twentieth century. This wall is one of the secret treasures of the town, and when you enter our street, Jasper Street, you think you are entering an estate. This is a secret work of art that few people, even in Marquette County, Michigan, know about. We line up against the wall across the way for family photographs each year.
     This particular neighborhood, or location, as we call neighborhoods in our mining town (locations of mines), was mostly populated by Finnish immigrants after the turn of the twentieth century, and the alley still bears the characteristic carpentry of rural Finnish hay barns. The location is now poor, rundown, and a rumored meth locale, with many rental properties. We are among the last of the original families who still live in the family home.
     Quartz is supposedly a rock with spiritual, healing powers, and vibrations and energy and new age connotations. I particularly remember the crystals that were displayed in the hallway entry at the Windows on the World, the top of the World Trade Center where we used to go for drinks or Sunday brunch, and the huge crystal boulders in the yards of rich folks in Sedona, Arizona. Those are crystals that form spears and prisms. But quartz is also present where there is iron. And gold. Our town also has a defunct gold mine. Quartz is a signal mineral, the second most common on earth. Lake Superior has an iron collar and prospectors knew that iron was near when they found hornblende and quartz in the hills bordering the southern shore of Lake Superior. Copper ore and float copper are also present in this mineral-rich peninsula, but that is 80 miles west of the Marquette Iron Range.
     Iron is the sine qua non of my town; the names of the local athletic teams reflect this--the Negaunee Miners and the Ishpeming Hematites. Hematite is a type of iron. Iron here is in the form of pocket ore, not powder, as it is in the Mesabi Range, of the western Lake Superior region. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the Marquette Iron Range is made up of the Ishpeming Formation, of Goodrich Quartzite and Bijiki Schist and the Negaunee Formation, of similar geologic rock.
     About a half mile north from my quartz rock is another phenomenon, the largest gem in the world, a high mound or dome of banded hematite. The silver blue hematite and deep maroon jasper are shown in the cover photograph of my book of collected works, A Location in the Upper Peninsula (1995), in a portrait of the rock taken by my artist/photographer son.
     Jasper Knob is one of the most idiosyncratic features of this region, and when we were kids, and even now (last summer) geologists from universities all over the nation on field trips, would arrive with their students, and we would guide them up the rocky, slippery needle-covered path, over the ore-red-tinted paths, beneath the white pines and Norway pines, mountain ash with its orange berries, and long-wild apple trees. One of my colleagues in the geology department uses the cover of my book to illustrate banded hematite and he told me he himself was on a field trip to the bluff while getting his Ph.D. from Iowa. The story of this bluff is dramatic. On this rock, in 1864, two explorers camped for the winter, built a shack and lived on potatoes, to claim it for the Graveraet Mining Company. Some claim jumpers came, shot at them, and drove the men away. The interlopers made the claim for the rival company after a winter race 200 miles east to Sault Ste. Marie to where claims were registered. Tales of such chicanery and violence inhabit the myths of this place.
     One genre of the local stories concerns immigrant characters from Cornwall, Sweden, Italy, Finland, and others who came to mine and log, to extrude ore and to cut first growth huge timber on the land. The third extraction of the region is fish from Superior. Robert Traver, the pen name of local lawyer and Michigan Supreme Court Judge John Voelker, gave me, for Christmas, 1987, a copy of his book called Danny and the Boys, with tales of these characters. He inscribed it thus, in green Sharpie: “Merry Christmas, thanks for your book and the best of good luck to Jane Piirto from her fellow Ishpeming writer. John Voelker (Robert Traver) Dec. 25th 1987.” He is most well known for his best-selling novel, Anatomy of a Murder, the film of which was made in Ishpeming. For months in the late 1950s our town buzzed with sightings of Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, Count Basie, and the director, Otto Preminger. My aunt was an extra in the courtroom scene; she’s the one with the white streak in her hair.
     Last summer I was at the old Roosevelt Bar where I met my husband in 1963. He was in the Air Force, stationed at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, on a high plain 20 miles east. The bar is closed down to the public but I was there listening to the local musicians jam during their weekly meeting. When the guy who now owns the bar heard my story of growing up there, going to college at Northern Michigan University nearby, and meeting my husband in this very room, he took me down the basement, where, inscribed on a wall were the signatures of all the stars, who used to hang out there after shooting. He even gave me a t-shirt screen printed from a photograph of those signatures on the wall. The town takes its history as a rich iron source for granted, and mainly ignores it, in favor of bragging about this one movie made here. I was a senior in high school then, and my claim to a movie star sighting is seeing the young, dark, and handsome Ben Gazzara one night as I was driving my family’s 1955 Chevrolet station wagon down library hill, on a rainy, windswept night. Gazarra was running from the Mather Inn, our local fancy hotel where the cast was staying, to the local bar on the corner, the same one owned by Voelker’s father, and from where the tales in Danny and the Boys were told.
     Even with all this history, including the first ski jump tournament started by immigrant Norwegians, and the National Ski Museum, our town’s most recent claim to fame is that this is the place where the coining of the term “catfish” came from. The original documentary showed how one of our local housewives reeled in a New York City boy with internet promises and seductions. Their house is on Strawberry Hill, just up from the Carnegie Library, and now we crane as we pass by, hoping to catch a glimpse of this lady, Angela, or her husband, Vince, who told the catfish and cod story that morphed into the catfishing concept which has been elaborated upon in many Dr. Phil shows where he scolds the fools who have been so gullible as to be taken in by internet seduction.


If you turn left at the Mackinac Bridge, onto US 2, right on Michigan 127, left on Michigan 28, merging onto US 41, taking 28/41 the back way to Ishpeming, turning left at the Cleveland Cliffs mining laboratory, you will be on Jasper Street in Marquette County Township 47, where you can drive through the gates and drive up the hill between the lovely stone walls, park next to the carved shiny hematite steps, and hike up Jasper Knob to see the banded hematite in its shiny profusion, and then you can cross into the Cleveland Woods, where you may be the lucky one to find that heavy quartz rock. I’m sure it is still there in the rugged terrain, on a ledge halfway down the cliff, beneath the underbrush, visible at eye level if you slide down the hill on your bum, but you have to go in summer, spring, or fall, because it will be invisible in winter, hidden in the deep, deep northern snow.

Jane Piirto is a native of Ishpeming, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her poem, “Here,” is the title poem of the recent anthology: Here: Women Writers on the Upper Peninsula, edited by Ron Reikki for Michigan State University Press. Piirto is an award-winning scholar in the area of creativity studies and gifted education. She has 20 books and chapbooks, both scholarly and literary, and has received Individual Artist Fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council in both poetry and fiction. She qualifies for listing in the Directory of American Poets & Writers as both a poet and a writer. She has received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mensa Foundation.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kerry Howley: The Satan of Small Things

The devil “works like a noiseless file,” St. Theresa writes from a cold room in a walled city. This is past the time when various friends insist that her rapturous erotic visions are works of Satan, whereupon she undertakes a course of “severe mortifications.” This is past the time when a church authority reassures her that what she calls “detachable death” is a legitimate spiritual missive, at which point she allows herself to see Jesus, Hell, a fire-wielding seraph slashing at her heart.

Still she talks of the devil, because it’s not as if she can stop worrying whether the voice of God is the devil pretending to be the voice of God. And its not as if Interior Castle, her instruction manual for fellow contemplatives, can proceed for even a few pages without reminding the instructees of the danger in which they engage through daily meditation.  The soul is but a “little butterfly,” blown between the Darkness and the Light.

For example: Should you feel impelled to pray an extra hour, you will take this to be a divinely inspired will toward holiness. But you must stop to wonder: Is this inspiration diabolical? Because the devil is known to tell sisters to pray so long and so hard that their health fails, whereupon they can no longer attend to the pressing business of the 16th century nunnery. And then you must wonder: Is this doubt that I feel in my own will to pray what is diabolical? As in, is the devil shouting over God’s orders? Or is this doubt God, the one with whom the soul craves Celestial Marriage, trying to shut down the devil? I am not in fact sure that the devil works like a noiseless file. In Theresa’s telling, he seems pretty loud.

To write about the self is to fight a lifetime of acculturation, to resist the scripts that have relentlessly reordered memory into plot. “Enter within yourselves,” the Prioress instructs, sending a thousand butterflies to battle. So we do, and we find Shakespeare, Seinfeld. The enemy is diffuse. He cannot even be relied upon to be the enemy.

I find Interior Castle to be a funny book, not only because of the persistent devotional whipsaw but also because of Theresa’s ever-present reminders to check in with your superiors before acting on a personal revelation, personal revelation being anathema to the social order in which Theresa, now a high-ranking nun, has become complicit. I mean I laugh out loud when I read it. In this I suppose I am something like poor George Trow and his fedora, envious at an ironic distance I’m powerless to close. How much better to conceive of one’s inner world as an eschatological battleground, chaotic with the clamor of war, the stakes high, the enemy whole. 

Late in life, Theresa prayed herself into an excruciatingly painful trance, “the entrance low and dark and confined, the floor swarming with putrid vermin… My bodily sufferings were unendurable… a pain so acute I know not how to speak of it… The soul itself tearing itself into pieces.” 

It was the closest she ever came to knowing the devil on Earth. The vision, she said, was heaven-sent. 

Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Oindrila Mukherjee - How To Survive a Visit to India: The Ethics of Representation

When I was growing up in Calcutta, during the twilight years of Mother Teresa, my hometown suffered a peculiar ignominy. Its leper colony had already been the subject of French author Dominique Lapierre’s 1985 novel City of Joy, adapted into film in 1992 (starring Patrick Swayze.) Mother Teresa’s hospice for the destitute, Nirmal Hriday (Home of the Pure Heart,) and the work she did in Calcutta drew attention chiefly to the city’s poverty. As a child the only “foreigners” I ever saw (apart from cricketers during tournaments) were tourists with fancy cameras, taking photographs of the slums and the homeless people on the city’s sidewalks. As a child, this filled me with shame and anger. When I left India to attend university in England, one of the first people I met was a gardener who worked the vast college grounds where I lived. As soon as he learned I was from Calcutta, he remarked, “But one hears of so much poverty there.” Looking back, I know that instead of feeling much compassion for those less privileged than me in my country, I was always defensive, always out to try and prove that we had shiny things too, just like the West. We had nice buildings, pretty clothes, posh schools. I cultivated a distaste, along with many of my contemporaries, for any negative portrayal of India by the Western media. This reaction of course can lead to a glossing over of the harsh realities that many Indians indeed face. But before the reaction comes the representation.

The Winter 2015 issue of Brevity, a journal I admire greatly, published an essay called “One Hundred Days In India,” by Jennifer Sinor. At first, when I read it I was certain that it was intended to be a parody of cliché images about India. But I soon realized I was wrong, that in fact the author had intended to write a sincere essay about her travels. As an Indian writer and critic, I was baffled at the thought that even in these times, an academic and experienced essayist could seem so unaware of both questions of authenticity – that is, the very truth which creative non-fiction seeks to unearth – and of the ethics of representing the other.

Sinor’s essay begins with the sentence, “In India, a dog, a monkey, and a cow attacked me.” This is the sentence that made me laugh out loud, expecting a clever spoof worthy of The Onion, a tongue-in-cheek mimicry of the reductive stereotyping that often occurs when Westerners attempt to represent India – think memoirs like Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert or movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the East is celebrated as a bastion of spirituality, where Indian characters speak in exaggerated accents, becoming caricatures of themselves, where poverty is romanticized for Western audiences. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but is all the more disturbing for continuing to perpetuate old imperialist views. Sinor’s first sentence sets up several problematic assumptions. First, she does not specify a city or neighborhood or region, but broadens her experience to be representative of the entire country. The sentence implies that either one or all of these animals attacked her everywhere she went in India. Second, the first reference she makes is not to a single person she met out of the 1.25 billion that populate India, or to the ancient and ever-changing culture, or the landscape, but to animals, as if India were a nation of beasts. She speaks of three creatures that are not commonly seen roaming the streets of America, thus establishing a divide between the two countries. Third, the verb “attacked” suggests acts of violence, hostility, danger, committed against her, the foreign, white woman, a trope that can be traced back to colonial literature about colonized people who are more comparable to beasts than civilized humans.

This first sentence sets up the tone for the rest of the essay which lists, in a matter of fact manner, the many ills India is made up of – slums, poverty, leprosy, dogfights – all images that are negative and unappetizing, including the pasta she and her family are served at a restaurant. (Pasta, incidentally, is the only food mentioned in an essay about India!) Readers may be forgiven for interpreting the essay as a litany of India’s ills. The sentence “The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world” is a stand-alone paragraph that is not narratively connected to the ones preceding or following it. It is simply thrown in there to add to the sense of misery, and national and cultural failure.

The first sight that greets Sinor when she is exiting the airport in Mumbai is that of the city’s infamous slums, which “unroll for miles in all directions.” Now, this is a fact. The slums are apparent, even from the air as the plane prepares to land. Miles of blue tarpaulin roofs cover the shanties that have been celebrated in so much literature and cinema, including the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. But Sinor’s fascination with India’s poverty blinds her to all other realities there. She fails to see the glaring markers of wealth around her in the same city, India’s financial, showbiz, and fashion capital. She makes no mention of the swank clubs and restaurants, or BMWs and Hondas crawling through the city, or the hundreds of towering high-rises including what is now the largest private residence in the world. I do not mention these to demonstrate India’s “bright” side. But how can one fail to notice the irony of such disparity. Why is there no attempt to contextualize the poverty she sees, against the backdrop of the country’s post-liberalization economy? Perhaps the author can only see that which is obviously different and none of that which might remind her – and her readers – of America.

Sinor’s imperial gaze continues when she visits a hill resort in the Himalayas which Indian tourists throng in the summer to escape the heat. They go for rest and recreation. But all she sees in McLeod Ganj are the “hundreds of destitute families” who live there. She is reminded of how good people and pets have it back home. In the West, she reminds us, “dogs had owners and poverty was concealed.” Perhaps Sinor has never been to an animal shelter or seen a homeless person in America. Ultimately, a limited vision about a foreign country is a limited vision about one’s own.

I use Brevity as a textbook in my undergraduate non-fiction class. When I shared this essay with my class this past semester, many students visibly cringed when we read about how the author and her son handed out coins to the poor. “She seems completely unaware of her Western privilege,” said one student. These were mostly young people who had never travelled outside the US, but they recognized instantly what was problematic about the essay. Sinor’s use of graphic images like the leper woman’s stumps to evoke pity among her readers objectifies the poor in the worst possible way. Her act of giving alms to the voiceless beggar in Benares is paternalistic and futile because it does absolutely nothing to eradicate even a tiny fraction of the real poverty in India or elsewhere. Instead it upholds the white savior complex, thus empowering, not the poor victim who is left with no agency, but the wealthy American.

I teach a fair bit of travel writing, often beginning with Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, “The Ugly Tourist,” where she insults the Western tourist with some harsh truths and explains at the very end where this bitterness comes from. The dynamic between the observing traveller and the observed local is always a complex one in travel writing. But it is multiplied when the traveller is from a historically empowered group and the local from a disempowered one. The history of travel writing is rife with problematic representations of colonized subjects by Eurocentric narrators. Historically, this genre has fallen prey to stereotypes and imperial rhetoric, as European colonizers “discovered” foreign lands and attempted to interpret their native populations for audiences back home. Canonical texts such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation have famously criticized Western travel writers for their imperial gaze and for their primitivist representations of other cultures. Contemporary scholars have gone on to complicate Said and Pratt’s theories and methodology, by developing the idea of the persona and point of view, and the concept of travel as a continuous, global process. Both contemporary travel and the genre of writing associated with it have undergone many changes. It is necessary to ask, what responsibility, if any, does the travel writer have when writing about a place that is not native to her? And also, who has the authority to represent the other?

It is by no means only the Western writer who faces challenges when representing India. Several writers from India, both resident and diasporic, have sometimes resorted to cliché or stereotypes when writing about their native cultures, for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay. To answer the second question I posed above, it seems clear that anyone has the authority to represent a place or its people, so long as she is willing to do her homework and examine the historical and cultural context of her subject matter. This brings us to what I consider a critical element in the writing of non-fiction: Research.

Research is not only the realm of the reporter or academic. One of the biggest challenges I have faced when teaching non-fiction is to engage students in research. So often, young writers are content to write about experiences that are deeply personal but not universal. There is a belief, encouraged by reality TV, social networks, and confessional memoirs, that the writer’s personal opinion and experience are enough. Sometimes, they might be. Often, such as when drawing inferences about an entire group of people, it is not. Travel writers have a special responsibility. No writing is perhaps more political than travel writing. It is essential for practitioners to be wary of one’s own prejudices and of the dangers of resorting to cliché.

An essay published on Essay Daily a few months ago, by Lawrence Lenhart, called “Tigris! Tigris! A Species Loneliness” is a good example of how to do this. Lenhart demonstrates acute self-consciousness about his status as an American visitor to the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests that spread across both India and Bangladesh. He goes there hoping to see a tiger but returns to America without having seen one. His failure to see the expected animal is anti-climactic but real. Just because you go to a forest in the Indian Subcontinent that is famous for tigers does not ensure that you will see one. When a fellow tourist makes the joke about needing to “disorient,” Lenhart chants “Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said ” to remind himself not to give into any impulse to exoticize. When he encounters a religious shrine in a village in the Sunderbans, he inquires about the origins of the myth, thus giving a voice to the local people who, ironically, are not sure about the response. There are no easy answers for Lenhart, only questions. His essay does not pin the tiger to South Asia, but traces its existence in Western literature, music, and other media. His is an exploration of the tiger across the world. This universality enables him to blend with his characters and subjects. The tiger is de-exoticized and belongs to the entire world. What helps his essay immensely is his research. Admittedly, it is easier to incorporate research into a longer essay than one under 700 words. But brevity cannot be an excuse for lack of nuance.

On May 30 this year, NPR ran a piece called “Mary Ellen Park and the Caged Prostitutes of Mumbai,” celebrating the deceased photographer’s project published in 1981. The photographs of the prostitutes of Falkland Street, Mumbai, are stunning, and prostitution indeed exists in Mumbai (as it does elsewhere.) But Born Into Brothels, the 2005 award-winning documentary by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, about Calcutta’s red light children, was also a well-made and poignant film highlighting the plight of some of India’s wretched. It is when we start to stack up these creative projects by Americans about India, that a narrative pattern emerges. India is a country of miserable poverty and social ills, and it is up to the white savior from the West to champion its cause and in the process win critical acclaim. In an essay in The Huffington Post called “5 reasons why ‘poverty porn empowers’ the wrong person,” Emily Roenigk writes: “Poverty porn tells donors that because of their position in society and because of their resources they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about.”

On May 28, The New York Times published an article called “Holding Your Breath in India” in its Sunday Review section, by Gardiner Harris who served as South Asia correspondent in Delhi for three years. In the article Harris complains about India’s pollution, sewage system, heat, tropical disease, traffic and so on. He says, “When I became a South Asia correspondent for The New York Times three years ago, my wife and I were both excited and prepared for difficulties — insistent beggars, endemic dengue and summertime temperatures that reach 120 degrees. But we had little inkling just how dangerous this city would be for our boys.” He lists the difficulties they were prepared for, but never tells us what they were excited about. He describes Delhi as “one of the worst public health disasters in the world.” As an Indian who has spent much time in Delhi I have to agree with Harris. But this is not the place to discuss Delhi’s pollution levels. Those are facts, increasingly well recorded. What strikes me as a bit odd is that over the period of three years Harris and his family lived in Delhi, they seem to not have registered any positive or even enriching experiences in India. No Indian friends or rewarding work experiences or travels or cultural experiences find a mention in his piece, which, significantly, is not a news report but an editorial, a genre that has room for much analysis and critical thinking. Harris does not take advantage of this and the result is yet another one-sided, predictable personal essay about India.

The representation of India does not appear to have altered much in the last hundred years. EM Forster’s colonial characters in A Passage to India, published in 1924, complained about the heat in India and the predatory impulses of Indian men. In the middle of the 20th century, American hippies depicted India as a nation of mysticism and spirituality, an equally reductive view. Visit any urban metropolis in the country today and you will find, at least on the surface, little semblance of spirituality, as young people race to collect more electronic gadgets, bigger cars, and more real estate, to become, in short, as Americanized as possible.

A writer does not have to be an activist (and writing alone is not real activism anyway,) but essayists do owe it to readers to examine the truth in all its nuance and complexity. Those of us who also teach young writers share an even greater responsibility. Ignoring the politics of representation means ignoring the truth that we essayists must strive to examine. It is not separate from craft but an essential element of it.

What Sinor’s essay has really done is create a persona that is liable to become a subject of ridicule. Imagine a white American tourist surrounded by Indian pilgrims in the famously religious Hindu city of Benares. For dinner, her family orders pasta. Then they walk around the city, expressing shock and awe at the sight of every street urchin that cleverly asks them for American money. They hand out coins to everyone they see and then fold their hands in an elaborate Namaste, and procure a bottle of polluted, nasty water from the Ganges, ask for everyone’s sins to be washed away, and head home so she can write about India’s problems for American readers. I am not the one who came up with this caricature. It is a cliché of the author’s own making. Surely we owe it to our readers to represent not only others but also ourselves in more complex ways.

Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Before moving to the US she worked as a journalist in Calcutta. Currently, she is working on a novel and a collection of stories. You can follow her on twitter at @oinkness.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wren Awry on editing Tiny Donkey, short-form fairy-tale nonfiction

At the end of Kate Bernheimer's “Introduction to Fairy Tales” class, she asked her students to fill out a survey about course content. One of the questions was, to paraphrase, “Of all the authors we read this semester, who was your favorite?” Kate’s syllabus was loaded with great reads, including work by J.K. Rowling, Lucy Clifford, Aimee Bender, and Neil Gaiman (alongside the classic tales, of course). But, without hesitation, I typed “Maria Tatar.”

Tatar, a professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at Harvard, edited The Classic Fairy Tales—which served as our textbook—and the annotated edition of Peter Pan that we read. While she is more often thought of as a scholar than as a writer, I’m riveted by her introductions to and notes on texts—I sometimes love them more than the texts themselves. That's not so weird if you know me: I'm an info nerd with a strong interest in obfuscated, folkloric history. (This interest started years back: I’ll never forget how frustrated I felt when, at age twelve, my American Online Parental Controls precluded me from doing a successful search for “Snow White”—I needed, desperately, to know if it was of French or German origin.) But, even among writers of fairy tale scholarship and history, Tatar's writing is special. She keeps me glued to the page in a way that no other fairy tale scholars, and few fairy tales, do.

When I pitched the idea for Tiny Donkey, the online journal of short-form fairy-tale nonfiction that's an offshoot of Fairy Tale Review, Tatar served as a major inspiration. It was Kate who challenged me to make Tiny Donkey “short-form” and, though I didn't recognize it at the time, brevity is also characteristic of Tatar's writing—she has a way of summing an entire history or theoretical approach in a single, perfectly paced paragraph. Take, for example, this 243 word opening to her Classic Fairy Tales chapter on “Hansel & Gretel”:

Food—its presence and its absence—shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he yearns out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him. “What shall I command?” asks the hero of a Greek tale when told he can have anything he wants. Without a moment's hesitation, he responds by asking for “Food to Eat!” Wish fulfillment in fairy tales often has more to do with the stomach than with the heart. As Robert Darnton has pointed out in his discussion of the origins of fairy tales in adult peasant culture, “To eat one's fill, eat until the exhaustion of the appetite . . . was the principal pleasure that peasants dangled before their imaginations, and one that they rarely realized in their lives.” The same could be said about small children. While many folktales take us into the rugged and often brutal world of peasant life, where survival depends on getting your next meal, fairy tales often take us squarely in to the household, where everyone seems to be anxious about what's for dinner and about who's for dinner. The peasants of folktales may have to worry about famines, but children in fairy tales live perpetually under the double threat of starvation and cannibalism.

Like Tatar's work, Tiny Donkey allows its contributors to take a slice of the fairy-tale universe, chase it down a rabbit hole, and sum up findings elegantly in about four-hundred words. Of course, Tiny Donkey essays aren’t limited to scholarship, and neither is Tatar. In The Annotated Peter Pan, Tatar includes a section of quotes from Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkein, Virginia Woolf, and others who love or loathe Barrie’s tale. Woolf says, simply, “We went with Gerald to Peter Pan, Barries [sic] play—imaginative and witty like all of his, but just too sentimental.—However it was a great treat.”2 These two sentences let me imagine the author of Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando in the box of a London theater, grappling with a children’s play. We want to leave space in Tiny Donkey for works like this, little memoirs that emphasize the I and analyze how fairy tales interact with our lives.

Fairy tales have a deeply personal resonance for me—they've cropped up over and over again throughout my life. I chose Tatar's opening paragraph as an example, in part, because I love food. I'm a culinary memoir addict, which means that I read story after story about an author's childhood pantry full of cornichons, or the macho, fast-paced heat of a New York City restaurant kitchen. While I remember my mother's Christmastime “spritzer cookies” fondly, and I've worked as a professional prep and short-order cook, my strongest food memories are the stranger, more fairy-tale ones. There are the Greek diners of suburban New York where, in high school, I'd eat late night “disco fries” and talk about Alice, Tom Waits' album-length take on the questionable relationship between Liddell & Lewis Carroll. Then there’s the kitchen of the cooperative I lived in the first time I went to college, where friends and I once prepared a “Lost Boys”-themed meal that consisted of homemade donuts and platters of raw vegetables (an alarming number of those donuts ended up on the facade of our house during the requisite food fight). And there’s the kitchen I found myself in when I, in a way, got lost in the woods, and ended up spending a year of my life working with an anti-mountaintop removal direct action campaign in southern West Virginia. The outdoor kitchen was made of tarps, plywood and propane burners, and it was manned by a career cook and activist who was once described as a “figure straight out of Tolkien” by the Missoula Independent. There, in that little compound along a West Virginia river, I knew it was time to wake up when the scent of cowboy coffee, made with a dozen scoops of Maxwell House in a giant pot, wafted through the air. Much of the kitchen equipment, and the cook himself, came from an organization called Seeds of Peace. One of Seeds of Peace's slogans is “Eat First! Then Smash the State,” which reminds me of the Greek hero in Tatar's paragraph, who demanded food before anything else. In social movements, like in fairy tales, food is crucial, central, and not to be forgotten.

Tatar mentions that “. . . fairy tales often take us squarely in to the household, where everyone seems to be anxious about what's for dinner and about who's for dinner.” The household is oft considered the heart of society and family, and meals are an extension of this. But homes, and food, can exist on the margins, too. Hansel and Gretel find their way to a witch's house deep in the woods, and the jumbled collection of houses I trampled through in West Virginia hardly resembled my parents' kempt, suburban home. Likewise, Tiny Donkey is particularly interested in marginal and unique voices—we want to publish the work of undergraduates, writers working outside of the academy, and writers underrepresented in fairy-tale scholarship and literature. When we serve up our brief dishes and you ask what's for dinner, we want it to be something you haven't tried before.

To submit to Tiny Donkey, please visit us here.

Wren Awry is a writer, student and cook based in Tucson, AZ. They’re a contributor to and founding editor of Tiny Donkey, an undergraduate journal of online, fairy tale non-fiction affiliated with Fairy Tale Review. They occasionally write criticism for The Anarcho-Geek Review, and their creative nonfiction has been published in Loom Art Zine. In the past, Wren dabbled in advocacy journalism, zine-making, and media strategy for environmental campaigns.

Tatar, Maria. "Introduction: Hansel and Gretel." The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 179. Print.

Tatar, Maria, and J.M. Barrie. Ed. Maria Tatar. The Annotated Peter Pan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 345­73. Print.

Klemz, Patrick. "Time to CUT a Deal." Missoula Independent. Missoula News/Independent Publishing, 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 03 June 2015.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Justin Chen on Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, long-distance family connections, and a syncopation of Circadian rhythms

What Comes Next

We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain.
Nothing good ever comes of love. What comes of love is always something better.

                                -Roberto Bolaño

His Mother’s Side 

On the plane he opened The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. He liked novels without a clear plot—stories that can’t be summarized only experienced.

People were slouching in their seats—a particularly dense form of slumping found on overnight flights. He liked that he could tell which passengers were traveling together by the angles of their bodies to each other; there was a familial gravity drawing clumps of people inward. His father was watching a movie without headphones. That was the way he preferred—to be a deaf observer of flashing images.

It was gray and raining. His mother and younger sister were still in bed. From the hotel window he studied a stonewall with small fountains at regularly spaced intervals. Rain drained out of a line of small holes in the wall—streams of arching water looking like the rib cage of a small animal. Whenever the wind blew, the streams swayed, never in unison, but one after the other like someone riffling through the pages of a book.

Twenty something hours on the plane (Boston to New York to Tokyo to Taipei)
One hour on high-speed rail down the coast of Taiwan
75 minutes in a car to his maternal grandfather’s fish farm

Inventory of his mother’s side of the family as performed by his father: 
A college graduate
A high school drop out (HSD)
A, technically, middle school drop out (MSD)

Reading as if the book was splitting his mind like a prism dissecting layers of light so that there were two of him moving through the story. A lighter layer that skimmed over the text, feeling the texture of the words, the tone and shape of the sentence. Then a denser, visceral consciousness sinking into the plot and emotion of the story.

Vegetation (trees, fronds, weeds, bushes) crept in on the city like notes scribbled in the margin of a book. Most houses had metal corrugated roofs, tiled walls and bare concrete floors. The innards were exposed—piping, propane gas canisters, air ducts. There were dogs—feral dogs, wild-looking dogs with long tongues chained to fences, dogs in fancy jackets with pleated padding urinating on the sidewalk.

What he learned on the one-hour high-speed rail: 
It was his parent’s 30th anniversary
They were married on December 25th because that’s when his father had winter break and could fly home from school in America
His father would say that his mother was stupid and she would say well you’re the one who married me 

The Savage Detectives follows the agitated, combustible, lives of poets (the Visceral Realists). To them, poetry, politics and life are inseparable. They interrupt lectures of rival poets, steal from bookstores and plot to kidnap Poet Laureate Octavio Paz. Exiled from their homes in Mexico City, they pass through Paris, Tel Aviv, Vienna and Barcelona. The three main characters are Juan Garcia Madero, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano but there are more than forty characters giving kaleidoscopic experiences of abandoning friendships to disappear in the desert, flickering in and out of love affairs, writing personal truths that the world forgets.

His family never stayed in the same house for more than one night. He thought of the desultory lives of the novel’s characters—their fatalistic and melancholy machismo as they are drawn further and further out into time away from the lives they expected.

The highway median held grass and sparse shrubs. The car sped along an empty road bordering a flat, gray ocean. If he looked straight out the passenger window at the bushes passing by, they became vague and opaque like little puffs of amber smoke splayed out in the wind.

His father adjusted the air condition of every car they got into. His mother closed every door behind her complaining of mosquitoes that kept her up during the night and were invisible to everyone but her. Watch out for the mosquito she said and he imagined one large mosquito with a hat or some other distinguishing feature following her from town to town.

His family spoke Taiwanese which he knew 1/100th as well as Chinese which he knew 1/1000th as well as he knew English.

This is your maternal grandfather’s fishpond. They worked all day and night and sent your mother to college which was pretty rare. Then your mother and myself worked hard to send you to college. If you fail out of grad school you could come back and work here.

Questions he is asked by relatives: 
Do you speak/understand Chinese/Taiwanese?
How old are you?
Do you have a girlfriend?
Do you remember me?

In the countryside he drank tea with the last fish farmer on his grandfather’s land—a sixty-year old with jet-black hair who made tea on top of a piece of driftwood. A marvel in directional fluidics. Water boiling. Water poured into teapots. Teapots emptied into other teapots—an elaborate transfer like that of a street magician switching a ball between cups. Water sloshing and spilling, running down the channels and contours of the driftwood to collect in a single reservoir.

The teacups had the dorsal silhouette of two fish painted at the bottom so that when you swirled the cup you expected them to sway.

They spoke with the circular logic/rhythm of spoken word poets: 
Here’s my daughter
She’s your daughter
Yes, my daughter
She looks like you
She’s a vegetarian
She’s a vegetarian?
She only eats vegetables
So she’s a vegetarian
She doesn’t eat meat
Why didn’t you tell us?
We were in a rush and forgot
So she can’t eat meat right?
Yeah, she only eats vegetables

He discussed with his sister about being able to understand Taiwanese but not speak it. It’s like old English or Shakespeare. People can get the gist but no one uses it.

What he learned at dinner with his sister, father, mother, his uncle’s widow, her daughter (his cousin), his cousin’s husband, their 1.5 year old daughter: He was a slow baby. He learned to walk late. His father brought him to the doctor because he wasn’t talking.

He’s still slow. Slow to make friends but also slow to make enemies. Slow to learn and slow to forget.

When he was young, his mother took him to the library, He remembers walking out with a stack of twenty books. He read as if he didn’t know what hit him, as if he were falling down a well. He would stay up until 1am with the neck of his desk lamp bent over his pillow--the sound of his mother’s footsteps enough for him to switch off the light and fling himself under the covers. Then her hand cupping the heat of the bulb. Her voice a mix of exasperation and resignation.

In the villages they ate pig’s head soup. They said Americans like to bake but we cook everything in oil. After he was full and ate more and insisted he was full they went out on motorcycles and came back with bananas and pomegranates. They opened photo albums with his parents. You’re old they told his parents. We’re old his parents said. Kids grow up and you grow up too. 

In the photos he saw people at the beach scowling on motorcycles. People in wedding dresses or posing in their newly opened bakery. The MSD was seven and standing begrudgingly next to a bride. Amber hued polaroids where people are hugging each other on top of an open wagon and squinting into the wind. A bride and groom crossing a parking lot with a broken basketball hoop and stacks of rotting wood. People looking young and beautiful, looking oblivious like they couldn’t help but last that way forever.

He told himself that he knew his family would die. He felt prepared but instead he learned that people close to him could have a quiet and sinewy unhappiness. It never occurred to him that they would struggle against nostalgia and that everything they loved and mourned would be inextricably intertwined.

Their happiness was not his happiness. His happiness was insecure and carnivorous—always seeking more of itself. More and more. Happiness as a way to validate his existence.

He stayed with his aunt, a widow, in a narrow four-story apartment on top of her pharmacy. She gave his family her bedroom and slept on a cot. In the morning, tottering down the staircase, he almost missed her sparse form beneath the sheets. The room, gray with morning light, was filled with boxes and stacks of thick books. A window was cracked open and he heard the world shifting around them—the sputtering of exhaust ghosting through city streets, the auditory comets of birds flitting through the air.

Two framed photographs on top of his aunt’s piano: one of her husband, one of her father. He stared at them as if studying himself in the mirror.

He wondered about adult happiness. The happiness you feel after your spouse has died, your children have had their own children and the land of your childhood is replaced by another. He thought this happiness would be fuller than his—weary and self assured. Happiness with some weight behind it.

His Father’s Side 

They visit a hole in the wall with napkin dispensers along the back, steam tumbling through two flapping kitchen doors, a bathroom marked by a grizzly bear poster. They discover a Casino/Al-Capone themed breakfast buffet in the hotel lobby. He has rice with pickled seaweed, sushi, braised mushroom in oyster sauce, grapefruit, silky yogurt in German packaging, two bowls of cereal, noodle stir-fry, croissants, a chocolate sauce and peanut butter sandwich. They have nine-course meals where the food, intricate and bright, reminds him of tropical insects. They crowd into a restaurant along a wedding reception where a slideshow flashes images of the bride and groom. “See this!” His father holds up a gray sphere on his fork. “It’s a fish ball,” he exclaims. “Like a meatball but with fish.”

Eating as a language. You stuff your face and nod. Then the person across from you does the same.

At times they eat for two hours, get back on the tour bus and begin discussing dinner plans.

He enters a daze where he feels his stomach—tight and resistant. Then a trance-like- inertia—the type that carries him from late night into early morning, floating at the interface between consciousness and sleep. As if he were too tired to sleep or too full to stop eating. He sinks into fullness until he feels the resistance of his stomach relax. Then he eats until he feels his stomach again—as if they are all pink, glistening stomachs sitting and conversing around the table. Stomachs just wearing faces and hands. Then again the sinking against satiety and relaxation into another hidden chamber of hunger. Again and again—tightness to relaxation—a hypnotic oscillation that carries him into the night where the light is hazy and all faces familiar.

He isn’t religious. He thinks that when you die you are gone forever. A lonely thought but he can’t help it. Sometimes he imagines the history of peoples: the citizens of Pompeii preserved in ash, Revolutionary war soldiers marching down a dusty road, immigrants singing to crying babies in their native language. He imagines ghosts walking down the street—the air thick with them, jammed full like the rings of a tree trunk. Ghosts on top of ghosts on top of ghosts, all going about their lives and oblivious to one another. This thought calms him down a bit.

His grandmother is almost ninety. Her hair is white and stubbly. She wears an auburn wig and on top of that a red or green hat—the kind that French artists wear. She likes to giggle—a maternal tyrant orchestrating family photographs (Pose with a surprised face. Now with your mouth wide open. This time extend two fingers in a peace sign….) She has trouble with stairs. Going down, she walks backwards, looking over her shoulder, the lead foot groping the air. Going up she says don’t wait for me and begins her deliberate helical climb up the stairwell like a vine curling around a post.

Whenever he’s surrounded by bookshelves he feels like he’s walking through the heart of a forest. The stillness, the sense of compressed time. Each book its own world in a set of parallel worlds. The dense layers of words—visions and dreams from disparate times stacked on top of one another. This is what home should feel like.

Translator Natasha Wimmer writes that Bolaño idolizes the detective as someone who has seen more terrible sights than anyone else and never turns away:

He is a witness, a watcher, someone who gets to the marrow, the literal bloody core. In a poem from the collection Tres, he writes: 'I dreamed I was an old, sick detective, and I had been looking for lost people for a long time. Sometimes I happened to look at myself in the mirror and I recognized Roberto Bolaño.'

Halfway up the mountain his uncle stops the car and buys a bouquet of flowers from a roadside stand. The flowers have purple petals and long, strong stems the length of his forearm. His uncle divides the flowers into two groups and leans them against the front seat. He handles them like machetes.

It’s a clear day at the peak. Small shrines, gray rock engraved with bright yellow and blue, are terraced into the mountainside. The trees and shrubs, pruned to crisp edges, have the weightlessness of well-groomed objects. The lightness of the trees merges with the weight of the mountain. The land is somber and meticulous.

The temple is a library of urns—floor to ceiling shelves holding cremations. He imagines the thousands of cores of ash suspended around him like water droplets in a storm. They leave half of the flowers by his cousin’s urn. Everyone is restrained and this relieves him. His cousin, a year younger than himself, had been riding a motorcycle and collided with a garbage truck. This was four years ago. He studies the urn and the name—almost his name expect for the last character. The urn, the center of all the mourning and chaos that he has been tangential to—the steady center of his family’s black hole. His jaw begins to pulse. It feels like someone has punched him in the side of the face. He clenches and unclenches his mouth and the feeling lingers.

He often mixes up time and place. The past feels like a distant country, still accessible through effort and cunning.

His father walks along the streets of his old university. The night, hazy with streetlamps, is framed by the dark silhouette of palm trees. What’s your favorite college memory? He asks his father. My favorite memory? His father laughs as if the question is absurd. Do you see that bump in the road? I biked over it with no hands. I had a calculator in my shirt pocket and it didn’t fall out. All the girls didn’t think I could do it. 

He had always treated his cousin as an alter ego—another version of himself that existed in a parallel universe. Except that they would meet every few years to share stories. He had tried not to think about his cousin’s death. He feels that he should feel worse then he does. Then he feels thankful for not feeling worse than he does.

His extended family spends a night in a bed and breakfast in the countryside—a narrow, multistory building that’s simple and refined: expensive wood, tranquil pastel colors, rectangular hot tubs cut into each bathroom floor overlooking a balcony and rock garden. I can’t believe your father is paying for everyone his mother whispers.

The next day, whenever they sit down to a meal, he stands up next to his mother and mock announces Eat up. It’s all on me. I’m paying for everything. 

In the morning he runs for an hour uphill into the mountains. It’s one of his most redeeming qualities—the need for constant motion and the bleary tranquility of fatigue. His hair, wet with sweat and moisture of low hanging clouds, swishes against the side of his face. Up in the mountain everything is a lush waxy green and vibrantly alive like the skin of a tree frog. Upon returning to the hotel he soaks in the hot tub, his shoulders and neck resting on the wood’s edge. It’s still early and the sky over the balcony is a delicate membrane of blue and lavender. There’s a long bridge on the horizon. He knows it’s grimy and mechanically coarse but from this distance it’s delicate, almost non-existent and cuts the sky like the line dividing a column of oil and water.

Tiring of the view, he wipes his hand on a towel and opens The Savage Detectives. While reading, his sense of the world dulls around him until all he feels is a breeze through the window that flattens to nothing on the molten surface tension of the water.

The rules of pig:
Late at night, sit in a circle with your aunt and cousins and sister
Deal each person four cards
Take a card from the remaining pile. Either pass the card to the next person or keep it and pass another from your hand to the next person. You will always have four cards
Each person accepts a new card and passes another to continue the flow
The goal is to get four of a kind
When you have four, stick out your tongue
When you see someone stick out her tongue, stick out your tongue
The last person to stick out his/her tongue is a 1st level pig. If you are already a 1st level pig then you are a 2nd level pig and so on
You can only talk to people who are on the same level as you. If you accidentally talk to a lower pig then you descend a level.

He’s amazed by how girly and playful his aunt (a company executive) can be. She has short pixie hair, sits cross legged on the bed and pushes her body up against her daughter and the other girls around her. It’s not fair she says Justin never talks so he’ll never be a pig. He doesn’t fall for the trap. But she catches him later when asking who’s supposed to be dealing and he answers. 1st level pig she announces.

On the return flight to New York the cabin lights are low. People rise up sluggishly out of their seats as if detaching themselves from an accident. Their figures, dark and soft, walk up and down the aisles in an aimless lethargy. The strips of light lining the floor are a seam of light under a heavy door. His family sits together in a row. They are sleeping with their heads rolled back and mouth wide open—his mother, an auditory Picasso, rearranging normal snoring sounds into something beyond his understanding.

It doesn’t feel like they are in the air. It feels like they are in the belly of a ship with the water jostling around. He hasn’t moved his legs in 8 hours. He can’t wait until they are on the ground but he has a premonition that he’ll remember this moment for the rest of his life. That when his parents are gone, he’ll reach back for this bracket of time: The four of them together huddled around a cone of warm, stale air traveling 600 miles per hour. All the almost infinite permutations of history and configurations of molecules converging on this moment. Months later, waiting for a subway train, he’ll pull up this memory and wonder what the big deal was.

Whenever he finishes a book, he wants to go back to the first page. He doesn’t care about already knowing what will happen. All he wants is to bend time and, with the flip of a page, find himself unscathed at the beginning once more. Not the memory of the beginning but the true beginning.

He is lying horizontal in his apartment in Boston. The watch face glows green in his dark room as he resets the time. He feels a sensation, like the liftoff of a plane, of peeling up and away. It’s 11am in Taiwan. His grandmother could be sitting in the sofa that massages her back and feet. Or maybe she is flipping through clothes and deciding between the green and red hat. Your mom wants everything to be neat she had told him while pushing rolls of dresses across her bed but it’s fun to be a little messy. His uncle could be getting lunch ready for the two of them. Over the next few days he overlays a pale version of his family’s daily life in Taiwan over his own—a syncopation of Circadian rhythms. Over time, the weight and warmth of their lives sublimates and he is pulled back into this life. Then they leave his mind all together.

Justin Chen is a graduate student at MIT using frog embryos to study face formation. In his previous life as an undergraduate at Oberlin College he studied creative writing. He has published one essay, describing long distance running, in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Noam Dorr: House on Fire / House on Ice

I woke up with an acrid smell in my nose, a burning sensation in my throat. All night I had dreams I was on fire and couldn’t put it out. In the morning my roommate suggested that the smell was paint burning off of the radiators in the house, overworked due to the extreme low temperatures that February night, but that seemed like a stretch. I saw the explanation on my way to work, when I walked down the block to catch the El. The building on the corner of 52nd and Locust previously housed a pharmacy and a medical practice, at least according to the signs, but seemed mostly abandoned. One elderly resident still lived on the top floor, and resorted to kerosene heating to deal with the freezing cold the night before. A fire broke out, firefighters called in, no one was hurt, except the building and some firefighters who slipped on the ice formed by their own firefighting equipment. It was the ice, not the fire, that became arresting. The entire corner of that block was suspended in the water the firefighters sprayed in order to contain the flames. There was an ice-cubed traffic light, red and green lamps palely shining through, still struggling to direct traffic that wasn’t there; icicle beards decorated all of the power lines. The Ice House (or Ice Palace by some) became somewhat of a local tourist attraction, with crowds gathering to look at the scene. Days later the ice was still there:

Photo by Lindsey Gaydos, February 2015
Photo by Lindsey Gaydos, February 2015

Spring came, the ice melted, the house demolished, and neatly turfed over. I was walking back from work in downtown Philadelphia one afternoon when I froze again. This time rather than a suspended exterior, it was an exposed interior that kept my attention. A half-eaten theater, steel beams exposed, domed and frescoed ceiling collapsing on itself, the ghost audience facing the machines that were tearing the place apart. I could even see the theater trapdoor leading into nothing. And so I stopped and looked. For a little while I imagined this was the result of a blaze too, a moment when someone shouts “Fire! Fire!” in a theater in earnest. But a quick Google search on my phone revealed that this was the historic Boyd Theater, demolished to make way for a luxury apartment building; a different form of tragedy perhaps. I was not the only one pausing to reflect and take in the sight. Pedestrians stopped and took a photo, asking each other what happened there. Cyclists turned their heads, oblivious of the traffic ahead. It was an unusual moment in a city. 

Photo by Noam Dorr, May 2015
Photo by Noam Dorr, May 2015

The urban space tells us that we are not allowed to stop, not allowed to gaze or ponder or meditate on a scene. It is, in fact, a crime to do so, punishable by armed men and women. So we push forward, we don’t pause, we stay purposeful, or at least struggle to appear so. But every once in a while a sight forces us to stop, calls our attention to the extraordinary ordinary, layers of ice covering a building façade or machines gnawing at the seams of structures bring out their wonder, their spectacular.  

Perhaps I fixate on buildings in this post because Construction, the digital literary journal for which I’m the nonfiction editor, has an ongoing thematic interest in structures, in the way things around us are constructed (in addition to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, in every issue we also feature pieces devoted to architecture and to the border). But perhaps it is also because this breaking down and re-forming is what I search for in essays. If we can watch this action unfold in front of us, maybe we can also glimpse the inner-workings of a human mind, which is in a sense the promise of an essay. The essay is a house is a mind is the world being torn down and rebuilt.

Both of the essays in our last issue, an audio essay by Laura Brown-Lavoie and an animated essay by Sarah Minor, do this work in a form wholly their own. In Brown-Lavoie’s “Spring Harvest” layers of sound introduce us to a conflict between labor and landscape, a physical and historical surface that is best left untouched: work the earth and you will yield nothing but rocks; unhinge the bucolic New England rock wall and you will discover uncomfortable truths. And yet her voice, her rhythms and beats compel us to continue exploring this story, as her narrator constructs and deconstructs a landscape through a soundscape. In Minor’s “Stroud’s Legend, Again” we find ourselves gazing at an image transforming so slowly we cannot tell if changes are occurring or if it is just our imagination; is it buried treasure, or just the tip of a white skull, and how would the being whose skull it is experience this process of unearthing? Once we start stripping away the layers we cannot stop, though its voice may call out to us to cease our probing. 

I’ll end on a note about our digital format. Just as the urban space forbids us from lingering too long in one spot, so too in cyberspace it sometimes seems like we will sink if we don’t keep on clicking– there is always a better post, a more pleasurable status update on the horizon. I, for example, am a terrible online reader: I always have three different browsers running with 20 tabs open simultaneously, and a constant anxiety about all the pages I’m supposed to read and never do (my computer inevitably crashes, the tabs disappear, relieving me temporarily of the anxiety, and allowing me to start the cycle all over again). When it comes to long form text I find that I can never got lost in a webpage the same way I can in a book. So I search for essays that not only tell me I can stop, pause, take some time with them, but for ones who leave me no choice but to do so, loitering fines be damned. We are fortunate enough as a digital journal to be able to accommodate a myriad of forms, for which print would simply not work, or at least require some clunky compromise. I don’t strictly search for multimedia essays, and often find that the plainest form can be the most striking. I do, however, seek authors who fully embraced a form that not only enhances the content, but becomes the content itself; for constructs whose subjects shimmer under a layer of ice, that show me the beauty of their metal beams, their torn down walls.

Noam Dorr is the nonfiction editor for Construction. His work has appeared in Seneca Review, Gulf Coast, Wag’s Revue, and WorkingUSA, among other places. He is from Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud, Israel, currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, and this fall will begin his studies as a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Angela Palm: Cutting Up and Cutting In - Association and Digression in the Essay

Was the personal essay about the bar and restaurant I’d spent time in from age eight to twenty-one best presented in a collage of chronological memories that would suggest to the reader that I had grown up there? Or, would arranging paragraphs about various exchanges I’d had with intoxicated men over the years in non-chronological order better circle the truth of that experience? I could also organize the essay around the women I’d met there—the waitresses and bartenders who smoked and bickered and flirted and fucked both on the clock and off it. Complicating things further was the wood duck painting I’d done in high school while I was working there. It had earned me some scholarship money that would effectively, through a college education, enable me to leave the kind of town where I might have otherwise ended up a waitress or bartender. It belonged in the essay. As did the fact that wood ducks’ migratory patterns are programmed in their DNA—some fly south for the winter, but some stay where they are. You can’t tell the difference by their exterior, just as you can’t tell a person’s future—whether they’ll stick around or grow wings and fly away—by theirs. Whether they “belong” or not.

Each telling of the story, as well as the tangential elements that were relevant to my experience, seemed essential—connecting the important ways in which I spent time in this run down bar before I was even old enough to legally do so, eventually leaving it altogether. Each organization would reveal a different version of truth. One telling would read as sentimental, another would feel dangerous, and a third would seem sad. I could also abstract the experience by adding information about the establishment, the river that ran just outside, and the conservative political climate. These were all important. But I couldn’t exactly decide which telling was more important, which tone was more true, which aspects of the experience deserved page space. And yet, telling the whole story, person by person, day by day, from start to finish, seemed empty of meaning entirely. To troubleshoot the situation, I printed out the working draft and cut apart the paragraphs featuring the experiences that stood out most to me over the years, regardless of who was involved or what year it was. I spread them out, separating the blocks of text on the floor. I formed a grid of paragraphs, moved sentences up and down, looking for holes, stopping to read and insert new associations that cropped up, then rearranged them again. I did this until I felt the narrative, when read from “beginning” to “end” rang most true to the experience of working there—where I was shocked, made to wait, made a woman, made a mess.


The older man found me like this, surrounded by clippings in the common area of the office building where I rent a studio. He asked me what I was doing, and I tried to explain that I’d reached a point where reading onscreen wouldn’t accommodate the kind of structural tweaks I thought I needed to try to get the essay where it seemed to want to go. A straightforward narrative just wasn’t working, and there were parts that didn’t seem to fit anywhere, but were nonetheless crucial. The painting, for instance.

“Are you doing cut ups?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about, but said that, yeah, sure, I was cutting stuff up. “Just like the Rolling Stones,” he said. The Stones had used the cut up method, he explained, to solve the problem they were having with the lyrical arrangement of “Casino Boogie.” Fans have struggled to figure out the meaning of those lyrics, to which Mick Jagger explains in an interview with Uncut Magazine that the line “‘Million Dollar Sad’ doesn’t mean anything. We did it in LA in the studio. We just wrote phrases on bits of paper and cut them up. The Burroughs style. And then you throw them into a hat, pick them out and assemble them into verses. We did it for one number, but it worked. We probably did it ‘cos we couldn’t think of anything to write.”

But million dollar sad does mean something, wouldn’t you say?


Are you five-dollar sad? 

No, I’m million-dollar sad. 


Brion Gysin developed the cut ups style after accidentally cutting through layers of newspaper that, when positioned next to unintended text, created interesting combinations of text and image. He then intentionally cut up various texts and arranged them at random. He and Sinclair Beiles used this method to create the book Minutes to Go, which featured unedited cut ups mashed together as prose. I haven’t come across any research that terms this work a kind of essay, but I think, at its heart, it was. Gysin taught William S. Burroughs the method and together they developed it further at The Beat Hotel in Paris. The two created both written works and films that utilized the technique, and subsequently published essays on the form in a collection called The Third Mind. “All writing is in fact cut-ups,” Burroughs says. “A collage of words read heard overheard. What else? Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation.”


A cut up excerpt from Minutes to Go’s “Open Letter to Life Magazine” reads, “Pitiful personal lives of suspension, flapping frantic, come to stare.” That’s pretty much what comes to mind when I think of back issues of Life Magazine. It also brings to mind People magazine, TMZ, Facebook, and Tinder. It could also describe the self-loathing I feel when I’ve spent too much time writing about myself in a personal essay. It’s the point at which I digress, the point at which white space says to the reader, “Don’t look at this pitiful life a second longer; come with me over here instead and we’ll look at something interesting for a moment.”


Like a painting of a wood duck.


Cutting and mixing up newspapers and previously completed texts to create new meaning was really a literary revival of what dada artists had already introduced in the visual arts. German artist Hannah Höch, remembered today as the punk artist of Berlin’s dada scene for being on the fringe of the fringe, composed mishmash artworks of image, fiber, artifact, painting, and text. Her work was typically political and pro-feminist in nature, ascribing progressive and sometimes radical messages for the time. Here’s Höch’s composite of images from Life Magazine:

Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936.
Photograph: Collection of IFA, Stuttgart Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

I would call it blond girl smiling on the hood of a car. I would call it me in 1999, in the parking lot of the bar/restaurant where I worked. I would call it after the shift ends. I would call it flirt. Or innocent. Or loss. Or are you old enough to hang out here? Your body says yes, but your smile says no.


Burroughs and Gysin thought their approach helped “decode the material’s implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text.” Burroughs thought the form might divine meaning through what he called “folding in,” or inserting text from the same story in places where it would fall out of time with the narrative, creating a chaotic kind of flashback or flashforward. He said of this method, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.” The description of how he used this approach in fiction is not unlike what creative nonfiction writers and lyric essayists today term “segmentation” or “collage,” where digressions both related and seemingly unrelated to the essay’s main subject are interspersed without regard for the strict constraint of the linear narrative. These digressions begin to make sense both in the context of the surrounding white space and juxtaposition against other segments, as well as in the essay’s future paragraphs, its central concerns, its end.


Two years ago, the older man cut into my present. Here’s a cut out of a longer personal essay concerning our friendship:

We had been meeting, all that time, to tell each other stories. There was never any agenda, which I found surprising for a man whose life was filled with agendas. He asked me to come, and I came. He asked to see what was in my head, and I opened it for him. The stories accumulated like snow on pines. He accumulated. With that much white, you dare not shake the trees lest the magic go, lest winter last forever inside you. 


A feature of the essay, I’ve always thought, is its ability to invite the wider world to the individual’s dinner table, via this kind of association and digression. There is still one host—the writer—but the table is long and there is plenty of room for guests. For instance, Jenny Boully, in “A Short Essay on Being,” sits down with pot Thai (“pad” Thai, as most Americans call it) for the duration of a 5,000-word essay. She begins by considering the word pad in the context of modern American culture, inviting its many associations to the table of the essay:

A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start. When I grew older, a pad was someone’s house. My college roommate and I had, according to many persons who traipsed in and out of our campus apartment during our senior year, a cool pad, a “budget” pad. You could also pad something, as in stuff it with cotton, or you could have a bra with built-in or removable pads: a padded bra. Pad is all of these, but seven years ago, I learned that it is a type of Thai noodle dish: pad Thai, it’s called.

Throughout the rest of the essay, she cuts in—folds in, abandoning chronology—the many social experiences from childhood through adulthood that contributed to her understanding of: her American identity in the context of her Thai roots; the traditional pot Thai dish versus its syrupy, too-sweet American representation, “pad” Thai; her personal identity versus the perceptions and misconceptions of the people around her. She begins with a simple noun, with which we can all associate half a dozen things, then slowly transforms “pad” Thai from an American shopping mall food court ethnic knockoff into a lens through which the reader bears witness to the writer’s self, injuriously reduced by cultural white-washing. As we read, we learn that “pad” Thai is just one among many egregious missteps made by the lot of us “white” Americans. In this way, Boully invites the reader to participate in the discovery, and, I think, offers offenders an opportunity to realign their own behaviors and assumptions. What begins as a reflexive apology for knowing too much about her own heritage becomes a covert act of revenge, shifting toward becoming unapologetic through a series of digressions and associations:

In the end, it was pad Thai that I made: something that repulsed me but that others ate up […] I never told him that, although I didn’t cook the pad Thai with fish sauce, I had added some to his bowl. The next day, he would complain of blue balls; however, he never once complained of a tummy ache.


In her brief essay, “The Art of Digression,” Judith Kitchen writes, “Like conversation, the essay is likely to veer away from its main point, to wander off, so to speak, into speculative territory.” This moving away from the subject, she says, isn’t a changing of the subject per se, but instead a “natural outflow of association.” In nonfiction, she says, we (as readers) move “rapidly from the text to our own experience and back again, testing what is said against what we know, what is recounted against what we have experienced…”


It’s like this: we’d sit in my writing office or in the older man’s conference room and talk for hours about film, art, writing, and philosophy, taking notes on one another’s thoughts and recommendations. I could wallpaper the room in our notes. I have notebooks filled with him. A stack of correspondence. He’d draw me pictures of the things he said as he said them because that is the kind of person he is. I’d take pictures of the pictures with my phone when he used the bathroom and stared at them later, late at night, because that is the kind of person I am. The conversation would digress rapidly, sometimes never getting back on course. Once, we riffed on gun stories for an entire afternoon, and he drew revolving revolvers as we spoke. Once, we talked about the phenomenon of the color blue for an hour. Mauve, for ten minutes, which led to a memory of the dresses his mother wore when he was a child. His mother. He told me things about her. Intimate things about her mental illness. Her dresses. The way she stayed up late with him to watch films in the late 1960s, before there were ways to record movies that aired at two in the morning. He told me about the way she was gone. The way his father was getting there, too. Once, we talked about seeing deeply into another person without making eye contact at all. Once, we arranged squares of colors in different ways to see what we would feel about their different ways.


My husband and I see colors differently. It matters to him that his blue is true blue. That his green is the greenest green. I’ve never understood this argument. I like the elusiveness of color, how it is slightly different for everyone. He doesn’t understand why I embrace the uncertainty of blue or why I think pondering colors flies see that humans can’t see is worthwhile. When I told him I read somewhere that we remember in black and white, he stopped talking. “Imagine a color you’ve never seen before,” I said.

It’s impossible.


The man I married has never attended one of my readings. The older man has sat in the front row twice. But I digress.


Digressions—spliced in histories, meditations on objects, films, art, other stories, an askance look at a nearby landmark, pad Thai—find the essayist in unexpected ways. They arrive like deus ex machinas from the literary heavens, making strange and sudden sense in the context of whatever essayistic crisis is underway at the moment. The ordinary becomes extraordinary and serendipitous; the original intention transforms. “Court digression,” Judith Kitchen advises. “Let your conversation get away from you. Let a new story take over…Something may happen along the way, something to alert you to its relevance.” The writer, she says, must trust herself to identify the connective tissue within the digression.

Boully identifies this occurrence directly in “A Short Essay on Being.” She writes, “I can’t figure out why authenticity has been linked to snobbery any more than I can figure out why, in an essay that set out to explore my being in terms of being Thai, I first launched into a tangent about Thai food and then digressed into preferring food that is authentic and true.” This discovery takes on great importance as Boully unearths the question of authenticity as it relates to what the average American “needs” to know about her origins. Of this she writes, “And because it’s never obvious to anyone just what ‘race’ I am…I am inevitably asked ‘where I’m from,’ which I have come to learn means ‘Just what are you?’” The average American apparently doesn’t apply the same need-to-know attitude about the “ethnic” foods they enjoy.


As essays are presented in the anthology The Next American Essay, John D’Agata prefaces them with brief musings on what the essay “is” through the ages. In the section 1978: “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed in the midst of another genre.” In the section 1982: “Maybe every essay is in some way experimental…an unmapped question that has sprung from the word question.”


During one of my dialogues with the older man, I shared with him an association writing exercise that I had used in a memoir writing class. I was hoping to give the students a tool that allowed them to move beyond the self, invite the world in, so to speak. “Humans can and will associate themselves with anything,” I told him.

“How so?” he asked.

“If I picked five random words and asked you to arrange them in a way that made ‘sense,’ or in other words, said something meaningful, you could do it.”

“Yeah, probably,” he agreed.


Tender. Insignificant. Complex. Breathlessness. Innuendo.

Me, on him: Tender, insignificant innuendo. Complex breathlessness.

Him, on me: Complex innuendo. Tender breathlessness, insignificant.

You see?


“Your brain will find some connection. Or, if not your brain, then your heart. There may be an emotional connection that defies logic,” Kitchen says of following the digression to wherever it may lead.


At the beginning of class I’d placed random items I’d gathered up from my home on the classroom table: a bottle of Elmer’s glue, dominoes, a vintage apron, camp soap, an iron-on NASA space camp patch, a matchbook, a Buddha figurine, a radio direction finder, and an infant receiving blanket. I passed out five index cards to each student and asked them to select an item they recognized. They didn’t have to know much about it, only what the item was. The directions were as follows:

Card 1: Write down a few sentences that describe what you know about this item. What’s it called? What do you know about it?

Card 2: Do you have any personal experience with the object? Write down a few lines about a particular experience with this object.

Card 3: Make a cognitive leap. What else comes to mind when you think about this object, your experience with it? Take a step away from the immediate knowledge of the object, look to the right or left. What’s there?

Card 4: What’s the most significant thing that happened to you in the past few weeks? Describe it in a few sentences.

Card 5: Return to the object. Does thinking about Card 4 in the context of this object provide a resolution of some kind? Write a few lines about it.

I then asked them to read over their cards and arrange them in different orders, looking for the strongest narrative arc the five cards could offer. Once they’d decided, they read the cards aloud. The insta-essay that struck me most was by the woman who’d selected the radio direction finder—it belonged to my husband; he is an airline pilot and our house contains all sorts of airplane odds and ends. I’d always (incorrectly) called it “the altimeter,” because it was the only airplane part name that I knew.

The radio direction finder, the student wrote, helps the pilot find her direction. It’s used for radio navigation, taking two measurements from two different radio signals to determine another approximate location. She’d been taking flying lessons, and had just learned to use one. On Card 3, she made a cognitive leap that transformed the object into a metaphor for her failed marriage—he had cheated on her; two signals, two locations. She had taken the wrong reading on this one, this man. The woman had just sold her house, and was moving into a smaller place now with her four kids. On Card 5, she returned to the object. Two paragraphs earlier, it was a metaphor for failure; now it was one for hope. After all, she could fly now.


Once, on a flight, I found a folded up piece of paper, left by a previous passenger, as I dug for my seatbelt. It was a list of pros and cons, weighing the qualities of one relationship against another. One woman against another.

Pro: has a steady job.
Con: not much interested in sex (with me).
Pro: likes reverse cowboy position.
Con: has a lot of debt.
Pro: likes my family.
Con: doesn’t think I’m funny (anymore).
Pro: is young.
Con: is very young.

The competitors: the mistress and the wife.


Love seemed a complicated emotional action for William S. Burroughs. In the documentary about his life, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, speculation and first-hand accounts of his romantic relationships cut into the story almost at random. He had a kind of sweet nesting relationship with a female friend, trading recipes with her for years. Patti Smith sang him lullabies. For a time, he slept with professional sex workers almost exclusively. Intellectual stimulation came from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other beat poets. Despite being gay, he married Joan Vollmer and with her had two children. He seemed to have had a lifelong romance with guns, while heroin occupied the role of the abusive boyfriend that he kept going back to. I think that perhaps Burroughs’s entire life was a series of digressions. His chosen life path generated conflict in the white space surrounding each dip away from the central concern of living.


In “A Short Essay on Being,” Boully summarizes a five-month relationship in a two-sentence digression:

 I was leaving for Thailand when we broke up, and he told me to enjoy myself in the land where so many plastic hamburger-chain toys were made…all that time, he thought I was Taiwanese and not Thai.


A cut up of me and the older man, courtesy of the Language Is a Virus Cut Up Machine:

was accumulated that the man pines. any I see a inside With it me He lest last had was He all stories. He to any last I forever magic tell in agenda, to for came. was him. you. snow to asked you. white, my the in came. other accumulated There and man stories He agendas. I dare the trees asked not filled was a been surprising inside head, with meeting, asked for forever surprising for the the the see dare agendas. 

 At first glance, the cut up makes no sense. “Cut-ups often come through as code messages with special meaning for the cutter…You cannot will spontaneity,” Burroughs says. “But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.”


digression, a cut up poem folded into an essay

was accumulated that the man pines. any I see a inside With it me He lest last had was He all stories. He to any last I forever magic tell in agenda, to for came. was him. you. snow to asked you. white, my the in came. other accumulated There and man stories He agendas. I dare the trees asked not filled was a been surprising inside head, with meeting, asked for forever surprising for the the the see dare agendas.


The most frequent criticism my work receives in workshops is that it wants to achieve too much; it is overambitious. “The essay should interrogate one subject,” one woman told me. “Your essays are like an octopus with too many legs. Cut some of the legs off,” she recommended.

But I never saw it that way. I agreed that the essay should interrogate, but did it have to interrogate a single subject? Did collage in essay have to read like an iteration of that Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” from my sophomore year writing class? Did it have to ask just one question in its thirteen ways? Though lovely and brilliant as a structure that translates well in the lyric essay, to my mind it was a constricted form that didn’t feel organic to my thought process or to my worldview. Humans are more connected to the world than that, absorbing a number of ideas at once, relating them to one another and running them through six lenses at once. Reducing the scope of the essay in that way felt, to me, missing a dimension or two. Or seven. I like my essays like Burroughs lived, like I like my own relationships—with digressions, meanderings that connect us to other people and things or lead us to the truth about ourselves. I like to pause for ducks. I like enrichments folded in, mined outside the form. I like friendships that are deep and intense, that cut the future into the present. I like authenticity. I like what renders the past irrelevant. I dare the trees a meeting, forever surprising the agendas.

Angela Palm is the author of the essay collection, Riverine, winner the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize (pub date, spring 2016). She is the editor of an anthology of literature by Vermont writers called Please Do Not Remove, published by Wind Ridge Books (2014). Her work also appears in or is forthcoming in Brevity, apt, Hippocampus, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Little Fiction/Big Truths, and elsewhere. Angela's work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Press’ Best of the Net awards. She owns Ink + Lead Literary Services and is an adjunct professor at Champlain College in Vermont.  


Yony Leyser, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, 2010.
Antony Balch, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gison, The Cut Ups, 1966.
Language Is a Virus Cut Up Machine,
Brian Dillon, “Hannah Hoch: Art’s Original Punk,” The Guardian. January 9, 2014.
Judith Kitchen, “The Art of Digression.” A Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, ed. Dinty W. Moore (Massachusetts: Rose Metal Press, 2012), 118–120.
Jenny Boully, “A Short Essay on Being.” TriQuarterly, Issue 138, 2010,
John D’Agata, The Next American Essay (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2003) 41, 95.
David Cavanagh, “Exile!” Uncut, Issue No. 155, April 2010.