As part of the series I curate, Breaking the Rules, Lawrence Lenhart was kind enough to answer a vatful of questions I asked him about his forthcoming book, Isolating Transgression, forthcoming from Outpost19. Previous iterations of this series can be found here: Part 1 with David Legault, Part 2 with Alison Stine, Part 3 alone with my own thoughts and Part 4, with David Carlin.
When you set out to put this collection together, what sorts of rules, either structural or ethical, did you set for yourself?
I started working on this collection last October just after moving to Sacramento. I didn’t have a job yet, so it was my way of hiring myself. I was trying to be optimistic about unemployment. Don’t pet owners always claim it’s unethical to leave their pets all day while they’re at work? Well, there I was: with my pets for ten hours a day, a stay-at-home pet owner. I was making up for lost time, really studying the tortoise’s carapace and the bird’s feathers—realizing how much they’d physically aged since I had last given them that kind of attention. The essays about the dog, ferret, and chameleon became resuscitation, taxidermy, and eulogy, respectively. The essays about the bird and tortoise (both are still living) act more like cryopreservation. I made it a rule to limit anthropomorphism. (I break that rule at least once in this interview, though.) I was interested in the nature of the (capture) bonds I have had with these animals, from biophilic to zoophilic (more on this later); the farce of trying to create elaborate habitats for them; and the ways in which I occasionally project their feral others onto them. They’re all case studies in Stockholm’s Syndrome with me as their bumbling captor. They’ve always known I’ve held the key. Somehow, it took until these essays to really understand it myself.
I also spent part of that Sacramento year abroad. When I go to another country as a tourist, I manage to see a lot; when I go as a writer, though, I mostly unsee. I have to learn to relinquish Henry Kissinger’s vision of Bangladesh as “basket case,” for instance. Naturally, I end up being both tourist and writer, and it’s important to be self-conscious about this duality. The ethical and structural concerns of writing essays abroad are complementary. For example, the Bangladesh essay is a braid and the Cambodia essay is a collage. These are preventative forms that are inherently decentralized. They disallow me from offering a singular vision of a country and its people. These forms prevent essentialism (a mechanism for colonialist inscription), or at least they diffuse it. Too, these essays have a different time signature than a linear essay. When I travel, I know I’m not just visiting a place, but also a time. How many travel shows begin with the phrase “a country frozen in time”? This is a very restricted and inaccurate phrase: if we don’t see the emblems of multinational corporations in a developing country’s urban center, is it really a country really frozen in time? The last time I checked, physics still hasn’t had its initial public offering.
For me, my Sacramento year was the year I became intentional about my effect on others’ lives. This can be domestic: a pet owner speaking to his parrotlet through the bars of a cage. And this can be global: the great-grandson of a coalminer coming face-to-face with a climate refugee in a slum complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Do you feel like there are some rules about nonfiction that you received in your writerly training that you particularly enjoy breaking?
It’s funny how the mind goes straight to genre. It still feels like the biggest line we can cross. There are a number of literary journals and anthologies (like this one called Bending Genre—ever heard of it?) that have installed turnstiles before the amusement park of hybridity. They have collectively created an awesome infrastructure for this non-genre or composite genre, whatever you want to call or uncall it. And I’m grateful for that. It may feel like we’re merely negotiating with a literary politic when we talk about genre hybridity, but that’s myopic. We must recognize the ways in which the writing workshop (see MFA vs. POC) and publication industry (see the VIDA Count) can mirror political histories as well.
I can’t say that “firmness of genre” was a rule I received in my training, though. At the University of Arizona, hybridity was more of a rule. Sometimes, I wish I had gotten my MFA decades ago, to see if I would have had the courage (or even the notion) to participate in that kind of alchemy.
Oh, here’s one: Many years before my MFA, I went to a Catholic grade school where I learned (among other things) that nuns used to strike left-handers (like me) with rulers. Even now, when I glimpse my left hand writing something for extended periods of time—a lesson plan, for example—I can still conjure Sister Grace’s eyes glowering at the knuckles of my left hand. I love writing with my left hand.
I think that would have to be my personal masochistic writing fantasy: writing hybrid essays with my left hand in a Catholic MFA program, circa 1972.
Your collection is called “Isolating Transgression.” This describes the content of the book but also, to me, the structure of the book. The transgressions are formal ones—yoking together Greek myth with bullies, Susquehannock with burglary, earthquakes with seizures. Do you consider these transgressions against the readerly expectations of careful transitions and explicated rhetorical logic? And, if so, how do you mitigate those transactions—I mean, how do you help the reader out in other ways to weave together the subtle logic of the essays?
The title comes from Rebecca Armstrong’s Cretan Woman: Pasiphaë, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin Poetry. Pasiphaë has sex with a bull and gives birth to the Minotaur. Virgil’s Eclogues sympathizes with Pasiphaë while Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is an ancient form of slut shaming. In her book, Armstrong describes Pasiphaë’s zoophilia as an “isolating transgression.” As an adjective, it feels passive. She has been isolated as a result of her transgression. As a verb, though, it feels more active, more forensic.
When I first sat to write the essay “Dogsucker,” I felt as if I had done something redundant. I had already narrated this story hundreds of times. It was predictable in its rhythms. I was being ventriloquized by my past. The six-page essay I wrote in Spring 2013 felt more like a deposition than an essay. It was very deflated because I had already outlasted that trauma. I had already addressed that wound. I knew I had to find a more complicated structure to make it “essay.” In my research, I could have never expected Pasiphaë’s story would affect me so deeply. I had read of her husband (Minos) and her son (Minotaur) and the inventor who incarcerated her son in the labyrinth (Daedalus), but for some reason (the one we’re all suspecting) Pasiphaë has been all but bleached from the common mythological record. I found her in a few library books in Tucson. I took the books to my car, and I stayed in the parking lot for a couple hours reading iterations of her story. It all felt so personal. Our lives echoed—narratively, psychologically, linguistically. Every time I sat down to write “Dogsucker” after that, I felt like we were holding hands. It took 11 years for someone to legitimize my story. I like to think I was the first to legitimize hers as well—unless someone in the past two millennia has also been forced into a zoophilic act, shouldered the shame, and saved faced upon encountering Pasiphaë many years later. It may have happened. Her experience, her existence reverberated mine. And the essay is an account of that reverberation.
Sometimes, though, structures “find” you. The night of August 24, 2014 was a night of rupture and consequence. My cousin had a seizure in Pittsburgh, my parrotlet had a night fright in Sacramento, and the South Napa Earthquake attained a 6.0 on the Richter Scale. With coincidence, there is very little yoking together; the events just belong to one another, and I sit to write the essay in the midst of that convergence. The logic begins temporally and ends up somewhere else.
A question about the essay “Dogsucker.” The first is, when I tell people about your awesome essay about fellating a dog, people are like, wow, that is disturbing. Do you, as I do, like to dismay your audience?
I had sent the collection out as Dogsucker: Essays. I can see how it feels like a stiff arm to a certain kind of reader, so I wasn’t surprised that this was the first thing my editor wanted to discuss. Is it worth the shock value, he genuinely wanted to know. And the answer is: probably not. For me, though, it is a received form. I’m desensitized to it. In my teens, strangers would know me by this epithet (Dogsucker, or Doggy Style). They’d come up to me and say, “Aren’t you him?” And I’d have to affirm before I got the chance to tell the story that upends or at least defends against the preceding reputation. It’s a story that always got told backwards—that’s kind of the trajectory with rumor and myth. This life experience really set me up to understand the way an essayist can manipulate (a harsh, but accurate word) their story. I realized that if I admitted the worst of it right out of the gate, and my listener would just give me another sixty seconds, then I could work my way towards the other, more nuanced (and sympathetic) reality. Of course, some people never get beyond the veneer of the story (or the cover or the title of a book), which is something you just have to accept. Sometimes, you only achieve provocation.
In the end, it wasn’t the right title for the collection as a whole. The transgressions in the collection are more global and disparate than this one incident. Urs Alleman’s Babyfucker, though: that is aptly named and way dismaying.
I go on to explain the background of the story, that the narrator was bullied into barely touching the dog’s penis and that the essay goes on to explore the connections between mythology and naming. The great paragraph, “Years later, Rushner shot himself in the stomach by accident. Years later, he was placed in a juvenile facility. Years later, he set a barn on fire. Years later, he shot his mother with a semiautomatic paintball gun in the parking lot of Giant Eagle. Years later, he turned into a Juggalo and publicly freestyled to Insane Clown Posse. I realize these are unfair details to include, and I am making him impossibly unsympathetic, but this is my first attempt at making a record  of why they called me Dogsucker, and I am not at all at ease. I succumb to mythologizing Rushner because his story is inextricable with mine.” does an excellent job revealing how self-aware the author is that he is the manipulator now, that, although bullied by Rushner and transformed from person named Larry to person named Dogsucker, the author is in charge of the naming now. Here, I think you break the rules of narrative arc by destabilizing the authority of the narrator but I think you also establish new rules about acknowledging how we make myths, narrators, and antagonists. How do you see this whole collection about that acknowledgement?
I often sidestep my role as a narrator to become, momentarily, my own reader, and more importantly, my own critic. It becomes “post-structural” insofar as I’m not just looking at the text, but also the conditions that have made the text possible.
In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a director) who is casting for an unwieldy theatrical production that is actually a microcosm of his own life. He hires a directorial understudy. He hires an understudy to follow that understudy around. There may even be another understudy attached to that chain. I can’t remember. In one scene, they imperfectly parrot each other. It’s this single-file style of method acting. In many of my essays, I feel this way—as if I’m lined up behind myself, ready to de-mythologize or re-mythologize, de-historicize or re-historicize, whatever’s necessary to proliferate readings of the essay. Do you remember the cover of that Michael Keaton film, Multiplicity?
In the “Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage,” the narrator talks to Arni the bird. I have no questions of my own I just love the narrator’s questions to the bird:
“What’s wrong, Arni? Did you feel an aftershock? What is this place, buddy? Huh? What woke you up? What caused your fright? Did you hurt yourself? Are you hurt? Do you miss Arizona? Do you miss the desert? Do you, mister? You haven’t adjusted yet, have you? Is it the moths? Is it the cat?”
Is this anthropomorphism? All the projection? The English language? I can’t tell. It feels empathic in the moment.
What is your feeling about citations? How much copying and pasting can we do from the web?
I used to teach the Academic Ethics and Integrity (“Plagiarism”) Workshop at the University of Arizona, so if any of my former students are reading, just stick with what I told you. Otherwise, there’s this:
I still try to get to the library for most of my research, mostly because it’s good exercise and I’m half-convinced I’ll meet Borges there one day. It might sound weird, but I’m a lot more diligent about citing when I’ve made multiple trips to the library for the book. I just returned an inter-library loan on Maldivian Folklore, and the citation just felt like a really important and automatic part of the ritual of the loan. Check it out.
Romero-Frias, Xavier. Folk Tales of the Maldives. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012. Print!
If I’m writing and researching (online) simultaneously, though, citation can sometimes feel like reversing onto tire spikes. So, I get cocky sometimes. I think, I’ll just take what I need for now, and I’ll come back later for the citation. And then when I can’t find it later, I have to remove the most important paraphrase of the essay. How tedious.
I use the Internet primarily to expedite my memory, to remind me of the actual word (rather than the version that ends with “–majigger”), to become occasionally bionic. I also use The Descriptionary (“the book for when you know what it is, but not what it’s called), a reference book my mentor, Ander Monson, recommended. Whoa: here it is online!
Is writing a kind of motion parallax like Arni’s headbobbing? (I’m a little obsessed with this essay?)
Exactly! Thanks to binocular vision, we all have depth perception. Our eyes collaborate to perceive a unified field of vision. It comes in handy when we’re driving (the pedestrian is beyond the intersection) or watching theatre (the Delphic Oracle is upstage-center, Oedipus Rex is center-stage-right). Writing dynamic sentences and adopting multiple perspectives is definitely a way to replicate motion parallax in writing. If the sentence doesn’t have the right curvature or the perspective is too fixed, the essay’s vision is like a parrotlet’s or a chameleon’s, with each eye (each field of vision) on its own. It’s just as the Oracle warns: “Though you have your sight, you cannot see in what misery you stand, nor where you are living nor with whom.” This is a good case for the visual essay. I mean, we’ll never compete with the paintings (I call them essays) of Hieronymus Bosch in terms of creating depth of field, but why not encourage a cerebral perception (the image within the text) that’s simultaneous with our actual perception (the text as image)?
How many threads are weavable? Arni, earthquake, bird song, seizures? How do you see cage, ground, brain-work tying together?
When I was in grade school, I
played flag football always used to ask to braid my girl
friends’ hair at recess. I was really bad at it. The problem, for me, was that I
loved their hair so much that I couldn’t distinguish the difference among
the strands. My friend, Sarah (an essayist too), often braids my fiancée’s
hair. These are probably her three two best skills, essaying and
braiding hair and throwing a party. Sometimes, I wonder if I would write
a superior braided essay if I had actually acquired this kind of kinesthetic
learning. To be able to tell the difference among the threads. To know when to
switch, and how. To know the way back. To not get manacled by all that hair.
Maybe when I have a daughter. Maybe if she grows her hair long.
Is it a self-imposed rule of yours to limit declarative statements? Here is a rare element of a definitive, an almost platitude: “E-commerce is a pilgrimage of instant gratification.”
How hard is it for you to leave those in your work? To come to those seemingly final conclusions?
I’ve never thought of it this way, but it’s true: I feel very skeptical of my voice when it has said something final or conclusive. In the case of the anecdote, it doesn’t become potentiated until I’ve rotated it a few times, allowed for it to be relevant in several different ways. Without that, an anecdote becomes a fraudulent replica. It might as well have never even happened.
Too, my reticence to be final or conclusive is a symptom of the act of making a sentence. I love, for example, Rikki Ducornet’s sentences. Or Bhanu Kapil’s. I strive for a dynamic syntax, and when a sentence succeeds in this regard, the declarations also become dynamic and open-ended.
It’s only when I’m so peeved by a phenomenon—when it has become ubiquitous and somehow harmful to the phenomenee—that I feel comfortable with (even liberated by) making a declarative statement.
Is it legal to compare bird hair to the Ramones, as in “but the dark feathers of his crown drooped like one of the Ramones.”?
I think so. I can’t find the exact orthologs between Johnny Ramone and the Gloster Canary. But while their genres may differ, their hairdos are uncanny.
One of my favorite elements of your writing is the way you adopt various stances in order to re-see or revise your original understanding, as you do here, “How quickly he would be ambushed by the North Huntingdon Police for suspicions of voyeurism. In Durbar Square, though, it is a Nepalese police officer who enthusiastically leads me to the spot beneath the girl’s window.” How important is it to do this rhetorically? Politically?
It’s important to take various stances over the course of an essay—to document and revise, to collaborate with oneself, and to acknowledge the privilege of that fluid perception. This relates to what postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak has called “practical politics of the open end” (see below). Or, in rhetoric, it’s comparable to Gertrude Stein’s kairotic inventions. It’s something the essay affords us: we can dilate the whole perceptual spectrum. I’ve found that sometimes in my essays, I need to point in two directions at once, and I don’t necessarily have to forfeit precision to achieve that. Eventually, every stance I take over the course of a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, a collection begins to cohere anyway. The stances superimpose themselves onto one another.
Why are you a genius? “Now, when I read it, the essay is a stethoscope, an acoustic instrument pressed against the neck of the subaltern whose larynx has been systematically removed. Spivak’s deconstruction explicitly states the subaltern and her voice are mutually exclusive: should she find it, she ceases to be subaltern.” (Rhetorical or not. You be the judge.)
I think I’ve only met two bona fide geniuses in my life: Noam Chomsky and Gayatri Spivak. I’ll remember meeting the latter always. I have read her critical essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” more than any other essay—the first twenty times for the sake of comprehension, the next twenty times to internalize its imperative. As summarized by The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the essay argues, “Even the most benevolent effort” to give silenced others a voice “merely repeats the very silencing it aims to combat.” This relates to several of your notes regarding ethics. Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee participate in Spivak’s discourse (the systemic silencing and/or violencing) of subjected bodies)—each from a very particular vantage, both with a rigorous lyricality and penchant for collage. I suspect Kapil and Cha might be geniuses too. There are so many invisible widgets up their sleeves. It’s difficult to deconstruct the genome of a genius like that. Norton goes on to say, “[Spivak’s] continual interrogation of assumptions can make [her] difficult to read. But her restless critiques connect directly to her ethical aspiration for a ‘politics of the open end,’ in which deconstruction acts as a ‘safeguard’ against the repression or exclusion of ‘alterities’…” I might need to step away from this interview for a moment and read that essay again—or watch this lecture.
In the Egg book I’m writing, I want to use images but I think it will be too big of a pain to get permissions. How does Outpost19 understand the difficulties of reproducing images? How much do you enjoy those difficulties?
Luckily, in the case of this book: all the images “belong” to me. In “Kumari Amenorrhea,” I’ve typewritten the 32 lachchins (“physical characteristics”) of the Raj Kumari (Kathmandu’s prepubescent living goddess), and pasted them into a silhouette of Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. In “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go,” I took over a thousand photographs of my tortoise’s carapace (shell) until I found 37 unique shots of his scutes (shields), which I then lassoed and assembled as a composite carapace. In “Captioning Novitiate,” I took the three photos of child monks in Myanmar—the first as part of a Shinbyu ceremony, the second while on a pilgrimage to Bago, and the third during almsgiving outside of Yangon. There’s also a music sheet with notes and lyrics to a song my dad used to sing to me (an homage to the New York School), and a few other schematics I’ve created (e.g., “How to Clip a Bird’s Wings”). Hopefully, because I own the vector graphics for the images, we’ll be able to reproduce them satisfactorily. The only exception is the nineteenth century adverts and diagrams situated in “The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage,” which I found in an antique book called Notes on Cage Birds, and which falls under public domain, meaning they belong to us all.
Permissions aside, I think it’s important to occasionally invite readers to interact with the essay in a visual way (the lyric essay makes a case for audition, so why shouldn’t the visual essay do the same with vision)? When I’m teaching nonfiction, I call this ESP (extrasensory proseption). It’s a little cheesy. Anyway, the visual essay feels more fully integrated into the way we actually experience the world. It’s one of those moments where utilitarianism and the avant-garde work well together. I should mention that at this year’s NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, there were a lot of badass visual essays: Lindsey Drager’s, Kristin Radtke’s, and Sarah Minor’s all come to mind. It’s gaining awesome momentum.
The beginning of “Too Slow:” “If when you slept on your chest, your spine became a roof: a tortoise.” We talk a lot about nonfiction when we talk about creative nonfiction but not a lot about creativity. How do you make your brain make the leaps you want it to make? How did you get from spine to roof to tortoise?
Yeah, that’s an important modifier. I always get a kick out of Sean Lovelace’s bio when he writes reviews for us at DIAGRAM. “Sean Lovelace directs the creative program at Ball State University,” it says. It should be emphasized on our websites and brochures: creative in bold.
In the case of an essay like “Too Slow,” the brain gets to leap a lot because it’s collage. The leap in the first sentence (“If when you slept on your chest, your spine became a roof: a tortoise.”) transforms the reader into the mountain nymph, Chelone (who appears in Aesopica and the Aeneid). Chelone’s myth is a physical embodiment of this association. When she refuses to attend Zeus’s wedding and says she’d prefer to stay at home, Zeus gets vindictive and replies, “You like your home so much? I’ll fuse it onto your back.” Chelone becomes a turtle of sorts (in the essay, I call it “the ultimate un-invitation”). Biologists used to use Chelonii in their nomenclature for the order of turtles. Too, this first sentence establishes a zoomorphic (rather than anthropomorphic) precedent in the essay, imagining humans as tortoises (/houses), and not vice versa.
There are a couple things I’m keeping track of when associatively leaping:
1) Varying the modes of persuasion. I try to avoid consecutive appeals to ethos, pathos, or logos. If they are consecutive out of necessity, their proportions should be different. For example: ethos, logos, small pathos, big pathos, logos, pathos, big ethos, small ethos. Something like that.
2) Modulating the lengths of the leaps. Sometimes, it’s a cliff jump (all adrenaline). Other times, it’s a long jump (all skill). Occasionally, the leap just gets you off the escalator (all neurosis). Sometimes, it’s important not to leap at all, but to linger: to harness the vertigo of what if.
In that essay, "Too Slow Is How the Tortoise Go,” you seem to break some part of the contract with the reader, asking them to read around, through, up and down, around the essay. How do you renegotiate the contract with the reader, i.e. if they get pulled out of the text, how do you bring them back?”
I must have spent a hundred hours or more on this essay. The designers over at Fourth Genre have invested a lot of their time as well. How grateful I am! The reading is still left-to-right, top-to-bottom, so it’s intuitive in that sense. My friend Noam Dorr wrote this essay, “Ants,” which follows the contours of an ant’s abdomen, thorax, head, antennae, and legs. The screen follows as he reads. It’s a polite performance of a fairly impolite (see: acrobatic) essay.
My tortoise has free roam of my office, meaning as I write, he’ll appear beneath me at any moment and nibble at my toenails (he thinks they’re hibiscus petals). He has these trajectories that are inexplicable to me, but common sense to him. As I’m writing, I often get distracted by his movements. The scutes are arranged to replicate his roving. When you arrive at them, they obstruct; and when you bypass them, they become phantoms. I’d like to think that in this essay, more than the others, text and image function as a gestalt.
No way!: “The ferrets dragged lacing twine by which workmen pulled through a
telephone wire. Those first magical telephone calls of the early 1900s were made possible by industrious ferrets that rodded ducts connecting buildings’ phone lines.” Just no way.
I know! Though: these were Mutela peturius, not Mustela nigripes (the black-footed ferret).
See the difference?
“I call it Ex Isle.” Yes.
I probably have this recurring dream of “Ex Isle” because I don’t have Facebook. All my “ex-stalking” (this parlance is problematic) happens during REM.
I first thought the essay collections cohered because of the kinds of trespass/transgress we make when we own animals, when we travel, when we leave our parents, when our girlfriends leave us. This paragraph made me change my mind: “When we were finally home alone (a rarity because my Dad’s disability kept him in bed, in house most days of the week), I noticed my girlfriend’s discomfort, her gritted teeth, and I asked what was wrong. Apparently, she was alarmed that Chaleido was watching us. I quickly covered his cage with a bath towel, but there were others—the puffers, the dragon—so we stopped. Bedroom sex would have to wait until college, where there the University of Pittsburgh had “a strict no-pet policy within the residence halls and on campus apartments.” Now I think the deeper connection is between intimacies. Does one have to trespass/transgress to gain intimacy? And if so, what are the ethics of trespass and transgression? What is the difference between transgression and trespass?
Our genre is steeped in this moral lexicon. The word “trespass” for me still conjures the Lord’s Prayer. “Confessional” writing transports me to the booth; it’s one of the pleasures of reading confessionalism, I think: we arrive on the priestly side of the lattice. We feel invulnerable. As writers, though, we are ever the penitent. How many of us have stepped into the workshop and felt like it was Judgment Day? It’s not always productive to be constantly minding oneself in this way, though, because who can bend their aesthetic to match the polygonal “boundaries” of this genre? It begs the question: Who has posted all these “No Trespassing” signs? And on whose behalf? And for whose benefit? If not for my benefit or the benefit of the audience for whom I write or the subject I write about, then fuck those signs. The reality is: it is often immoral not to break the rules. In the most secular sense of these words, I think “trespass” describes a certain kind of trajectory for an essay, a formal beyond (à la Georges Perec) and “transgress” is more substantive, a moral beyond (like the Marquis de Sade)—to eat the cake, have it too, and then chew the cud to boot. Both remain domains of the avant-garde.
I think we’re mostly repressed as a species, so in order to be intimate, yeah, I think we have to trespass the culture at large. Some people are genuinely oblivious of cultural sanctions (there’s something utopic about that) and others are indifferent to cultural sanctions (there’s something affected about that). I think in making the commitment to be a writer, one has agreed not to be oblivious or indifferent, but to be defiant of the culture (regardless of what they write). Writers trespass the culture (see: arte povera) by pledging intimacy to language over capital.
Sometimes, we have to trespass to even have a limbic experience of a word. I used to use the word “prostrate” in the most flippant way. If a character in fiction was searching for a remote under the couch, they “prostrated” themselves on the carpet. It’s hard to use a word like that unless you’ve done it yourself—yoga not included. Many years after I compulsively used this word, I was on a “pilgrimage” to Vaishno Devi Temple in northern India. There were thousands of devotees climbing this steep hill to behold the holy pindies, embodiments of the Durga. When I got to the top at about 4 AM, after six hours of uphill hiking, surrounded by thousands of other people, I saw an older woman flat on her belly, inching forward along the pavement. Someone had told me along the way that certain pilgrims don’t just begin in Katra like I did, but in Delhi. And some don’t just stomp up the mountain like I did, but they spend 400 miles (six months or more) prostrate, really earning the pilgrimage. When the woman saw me, she invited me to the ground to share some of the last inches before the queue to the shrine. I laid flat next to her, and for several meters, I was performing a word (and understanding a word) in a way that I couldn’t have before that. To have an intimate understanding of that word, I had to trespass the imaginary. I had to go beyond remote-fetching and child pose. Now, I almost never use it.
How acceptable is it to trick your reader into reading your thoughts? Sometimes, I feel like I’m hooking my reader in, burying the lede, with confession and narration, so they will listen to my protestations against mountaintop removal mining or theories about the power of metaphor. Is this wrong (please tell me it is A OK).
It is A OK. It is B OK. It is D OK. If you can trick a reader into perceiving a letter without it ever having been there, then you’re writing subterraneously. To create an afterimage out of a void is the ultimate efficiency. Oh, and e-commerce is a pilgrimage of instant gratification.
An ancillary question to the previous: What sort of pattern do you establish. In “Of No Ground” Are you a toggler? Back and forth back and forth between bigger story and detailed narrative? Is there a third thread? Bigger picture, detailed personal narrative, then detailed observed narrative? If there are three threads, what qualities distinguish personal narrative (I am the lifeguard) from observed narrative (I see the boy push the other boy under water?)
I’m a toggler, sure. I went to Bangladesh to finish a novel. In a novel (at least the semi-traditional kind of novel I was trying to write at the time), you don’t do much toggling. The novel is the detailed narrative, and the “bigger story” (climate change, Islamophobia, etc.) is implicit. The intercalary chapters of Grapes of Wrath are an interesting formal exception to this rule. And Rabih Alamedinne’s Kool Aids toggles. And in Midnight’s Children, the way character is “handcuffed” to history: that is a toggle. But usually, toggling between character and the bigger picture within a novel ends up looking something like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which is a good, but (I think) monotonous book.
In the essay, one of the important functions of toggling is ostranenie. The narrator inscribes the scene with a disparate context as a way of making it seem (paradoxically) more familiar. As an ocean lifeguard, it was my job to save drowning victims. Even when I see two boys fake-drowning one another in a pond in rural Bangladesh, the urge to take control is still there. Suddenly, the whole Atlantic Ocean is superimposed on this small pond. There is whiplash in this toggling from the Bay of Bengal to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It introduces a thread that’s global, and I’m reminded that, in fact, it’s me who’s drowning these boys. As a citizen of a nation that overconsumes, I’m the one complicit in generating the emissions that melt the ice caps that raise the sea levels that drown the lands like this one. What they’re doing is just play.
Love: “`It’s too late for us… and so we are the canary,'” said i-Kiribati President Tong. It is a powerful metaphor when considering the canary’s sacrificial utility in service to coalmining, the same fossil fuel that has exacerbated sea-level rise in atoll nations like Kiribati or Maldives. The latter’s average elevation is 1.5 meters (about the height of Danny DeVito)." I fear I am the height of Danny DeVito. I fear the canary. I fear the water rising. What to do with that fear? These peoples’ fear? You note that urbanization is the result of rising waters. How long can even the cities last? Are you the canary?
Re: Danny D: Fear not, he’s five-foot flat. I think you’ve got a few inches on him.
Re: the canary: “I am not afraid of life / but I get down on my knees” —The Ramones
Re: the water rising: Me too.
Re: the fear, what to do with it: I have the privilege to record my fears, to intellectualize my fears, to make metaphors of my fears. This is, perhaps, what evolution had in mind: the prefrontal cortex is the shield of the amygdala.
Re: these peoples’ fears, what to do with it: I cry a lot. I do not know.
Re: the cities, how long they will last: Projection is a political genre. There are several reputable models of paleoclimate records that have been pegged as alarmist. Conservatives prefer to interpret these models as hydrohyperbolism. Regardless of which model you use, it’s clear that AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) nations will be affected first, a few of them within our lifetime. Their collective population is something like that of the United Kingdom’s.
Re: the canary, are you him: I am not. I am the coalminer.
Never mind, answered my own question: “33. There will be a last Bangladeshi. She who stands up_on the peak of Mowdok Mual will earn the esteem of last citizen. Imagine census as roll call: 'I remain,' a declaration of last presence. Then what? Ankle deep in saline water, subaqua desh will dissolve her into flotsam émigré.” (page 171).
Have you ever heard “Dear Matafele Peinem” by Marshallese poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner? She read it before the United Nations a couple years ago. It’s an epistolary poem—a promissory, really—in which a mother pledges to her newborn that neither of them will become that canary.
Unfortunately, some would say there are already many canaries in the global coal mine. I am currently working on a hybrid project called Of No Ground: Apocryphal Biographies of Small Island States. Within each piece, climate change apocryphalizes the real biographies of figures from Tuvalu, Seychelles, Kiribati, Maldives, Belize, Vanuatu, etc. If we don’t bother to put faces on an impending HUMANitarian crisis like climate change, then we don’t face it at all.
Otters! (pg 168) You should go back on Facebook so you can send me otter memes!
Speaking of Face. I don’t plan on a return to Facebook anytime soon (see: ever), but you can stop by my home office sometime to see my framed poster of Audubon and Bachmann’s illustration of the black-footed ferret that hangs above my desk. They get the illustration all wrong: the ferret’s stealing eggs!
Ferrets don’t steal eggs. People didn’t know a lot about the ferret in 1851. Nor did they know a lot about eggs: that they’re noisy, for instance (Google it!). I think the otter is your spirit animal the same way the ferret is my dispirit animal. Mustelids rock!
If you could establish one rule for essay writing, what would it be?
Write every essay as if it’s also a letter of resignation.
In his monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray admits it’s difficult for him to deliver technical lines. “I can’t do stuff like this,” he says. “It’s like doing algebra.” In “Monologue About Bermuda,” Jonathan Richman’s retrospective about his time with proto-punk band, The Modern Lovers, he says, “After that trip to Bermuda, you know, that band never got along as well. That was really the beginning of the end for us.” He cites the band’s demise on the Lovers’ on-stage “stiffness.” In Spring and All, William Carlos Williams resigns from rhyme, and from The Waste Land. Williams advocates for “an escape from crude symbolism [and] the annihilation of strained associations.” In all three instances, the artists articulate points of artistic departure.
My rule is: stop talking about what you’re going to do, and start talking about what you’re no longer going to do—as an essayist, as a person. This is how the essay becomes the lingua franca of resignation and liberation.
Ferret Polecat Hybrid. Digital Image. Wikipedia: Heads of a polecat, ferret and polecat-ferret hybrid. Wikimedia Productions, Inc., 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Here's the Gloster Canary, the Bird With the Bowl Cut. Digital Image. BuzzFeed Animals. Tumblr, 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Untitled. Digital Image. Jess Should Talk Less. Tumblr, 13 May 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from The University of Arizona where he received two Foundation Awards and the biennial LaVerne Harrell Clark Award. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Sundog Lit, Wag's Revue, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM and a professor of fiction and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University. His collection of essays Isolating Transgression is forthcoming from Outpost19 in Fall 2016.
Nicole Walker is an otter-fan. Her chapbook Micrograms will be released in March from New Michigan Press. Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse is forthcoming this fall and Egg will be available in early 2017 as part of the Object Lesson series from Bloomsbury Press. Her previous collection, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, won the Zone 3 Prize for creative nonfiction. Her book of poems, This Noisy Egg, came out in 2010 from Barrow Street.She writes a lot about eggs.